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Harcourt,  Brace  and  Company    •     New  York 

©  1959  BY  CRANE  BRINTON 









I  AM  MOST  GRATEFUL  for  the  opportunity  of  spending  a  year  as  Fellow  of  the 
Center  for  Advanced  Study  in  the  Behavioral  Sciences  at  Stanford,  Cali- 
fornia, a  most  remarkable  institution,  already  legendary  in  spite  of  its  youth. 
The  legends  describe  it  variously,  as  the  "rest  cure,"  the  "country  club,"  the 
"think-shop,"  the  "bee-hive";  for  me,  it  has  been  the  Abbaye  de  Theleme 
and  its  motto  truly  "Do  what  thou  wilt."  Without  this  year  of  complete  free- 
dom, I  could  not  have  completed  the  book  at  this  time,  nor,  indeed,  have 
written  this  book  at  all.  In  fairness  I  should  list  as  those  to  whom  I  owe  a 
debt  for  help  in  this  book  all  of  my  colleagues  at  the  Center.  There  is  nothing 
vague  about  this  debt,  though  it  was  incurred  in  the  apparently  fugitive 
course  of  informal  discussion,  often  mere  conversation.  I  am  sure  that  many 
of  these  colleagues  could  hear  the  echo  of  their  voices  almost  anywhere  in 
the  course  of  this  book.  I  am  grateful  to  them,  and  to  Ralph  Tyler  and  the 
rest  of  the  most  permissive  "administration" — the  irony  always  implied  in 
such  quotation  marks  here  carries  no  trace  of  malice — who  made  life  so 
easy  for  us  all.  I  wish  also  to  express  my  gratitude  to  the  many  in  the  Stan- 
ford community  with  whom  the  Center  lives  in  a  fruitful  symbiosis. 

More  specifically,  I  thank  David  Landes,  who  lias  read  large  parts  of  the 
original  manuscript  and  made  discerning  criticisms,  which  I  have  tried  hard 
to  take  into  account;  Roy  Willis,  my  assistant,  who  did  much,  much  more 
than  mere  leg  work  for  me — though  he  did  a  great  deal  of  that,  and  most  un- 
complainingly; Mrs.  Jeanne  Gentry  and  Mrs.  Mary  Hurt  of  the  secretarial 
staff  at  the  Center,  who  struggled  successfully  with  my  untidy  manuscript; 


J.  Elliott  Janney,  who,  along  with  Lecky,  showed  me  the  value  of  the  con- 
cept of  the  moral  type  or  ideal;  William  Pullin,  who  set  me  at  this  difficult 
task;  my  secretary  in  Cambridge,  Miss  Elizabeth  F.  Hoxie,  whose  help  as 
usual  has  been  invaluable. 


Cambridge,  Mass. 
27  October  195S 



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IN  SEPTEMBER  1957  there  appeared  in  most  American  newspapers  a  news 
photograph  that  showed  a  Negro  girl  in  Little  Rock,  Arkansas,  after  a  vain 
attempt  to  enter  a  white  high  school,  leaving  the  premises  with  a  group  of 
whites  trailing  and  abusing  her.  The  face  of  one  white  girl  was  contorted  in  a 
shocking  way;  the  Negro  girl  looked  dignified  and  self-controlled.  Commen- 
tators in  the  North  were  unanimous  that  the  expression  of  the  Negro  girl 
symbolized  the  good  and  the  expression  of  the  white  girl  the  bad;  and  com- 
mentators in  the  South  were  at  least  much  disturbed  by  the  picture,  for  they 
could  not  help  making  the  same  specific  classifications  of  good  and  bad  that 
their  Northern  colleagues  did.  My  point  here,  however,  is  not  so  much  the 
fact  that  in  a  certain  sense  moral  goodness  and  moral  badness  were  in  this 
striking  photograph  made  real,  concrete,  even  "objective"  or  "universal." 
My  point  is,  rather,  that,  dismissing  for  the  moment  the  great  philosophical 
problems  lurking  here,  it  is  clear  that  no  one  could  look  at  that  photo- 
graph in  quite  the  way  he  could  look  at  a  diagram  of  the  occupation  of 
Saturn  by  the  moon  that  might  well  have  appeared  in  the  same  issue  of  his 
newspaper  or  news  weekly  as  did  the  photograph  from  Little  Rock.  Even  the 
diagram  of  the  occultation  of  Saturn  might  conceivably  have  stirred  the  emo- 
tions of  an  occasional  reader,  for  it  might  have  acted  as  a  trigger  to  release  a 
chain  of  thought-feeling  about  the  vastness  and  impersonality  of  the  astron- 
omer's universe  and  the  smallness  and  helplessness  of  man,  a  chain  for  which 
much  in  popular  contemporary  culture  supplies  the  materials.  But  the  picture 
of  the  good  Negro  girl  and  the  bad  white  girl  (some  editorial  writers  preferred 

A  History  of  Western  Morals 

to  call  the  white  girl  "evidently  neurotic,"  a  fact  again  good  grist  for  the 
historian  of  morals)  roused  very  strong  emotions  indeed,  emotions  best  de- 
scribed as  those  of  moral  indignation. 

One  very  obvious  difference  in  the  two  cases  cited  above  throws  light  on 
the  special  conditions  under  which  moral  emotions  are  commonly  felt.  The 
newspaper  reader  knew  and  felt  at  once  when  he  saw  the  faces  of  the  two 
girls  that  "something  should  be  done  about  it,"  that  he  himself  might  do 
something  about  it,  write  a  letter  to  the  editor,  to  his  congressman,  join  some- 
thing, pay  dues,  demonstrate,  at  the  very  least  express  an  opinion.  To  no  sane 
reader  did  the  thought  occur  that  he  could  do  anything  at  all  about  the  occul- 
tation  of  Saturn;  in  that  form,  the  thought  probably  did  not  even  occur  to  the 
reader  who  happened  to  be  a  devotee  of  the  newspaper's  daily  column  on 

Not  very  long  ago,  as  historical  time  goes,  almost  everybody  would  have 
felt  that  he  could,  by  himself  or  with  the  help  of  priest  or  magician,  do  some- 
thing about  matters  we  now  dismiss  from  our  minds — and  our  adrenals — as 
concerns  of  the  astronomer,  the  meteorologist,  or  some  other  expert  who 
himself  can  do  no  more  than  follow  Bacon's  aphorism  "Nature  is  not  to  be 
conquered  save  by  obeying  her."  Call  it  growth  of  natural  science,  or  of 
rationalism,  or  of  common  sense:  something  has  pushed  whole  areas  of  our 
experience  quite  out  of  what  we  take  to  be  our  power,  our  will,  even  out  of 
the  customary  field  of  action  of  any  god  or  cosmic  "force"  capable  of  concern 
for  humanity. 

A  great  deal,  however,  is  left  for  us  to  do  something  about  as  moral  beings 
inspired  by  moral  emotions.  Any  newspaper,  any  newscast,  will  supply  all 
that  the  most  hopeful  or  the  most  indignant  need  for  moral  exercise.  A  group 
of  determined  pacifists  set  out  in  true  Western  style  as  witnesses  to  the  eternal 
verities  to  sail  from  Honolulu  to  the  banned  area  in  the  Pacific  where  Ameri- 
can authorities  are  testing  atomic  weapons;  their  little  ketch  is  duly  stopped 
only  a  mile  or  so  from  port  by  court  injunction.  A  teen-aged  girl  stabs  to  death 
her  divorced  mother's  lover  and  is  gently  handed  over  by  the  court  to  the 
custody  of  her  maternal  grandmother.  Peruvian  university  students  greet  a 
good-willing  Vice-President  of  the  United  States  with  a  shower  of  vegetables, 
mixed  with  a  few  stones.  The  French  government  and  people  behave  toward 
the  Algerians  as  the  British  government  and  people  forty  years  ago  behaved 
toward  the  Irish.  A  Russian  representative  at  the  United  Nations  once  more 
asserts  that  the  United  States  is  striving  to  subject  the  whole  world  to  its 
capitalist  tyranny;  an  American  representative  once  more  replies  that  it  is  the 


Russians  who  seek  to  subject  us  all  to  Communist  tyranny.  An  Italian  bishop 
is  sued  in  a  secular  court  for  libeling  a  freethinking  couple  married  in  a  sec- 
ular ceremony  by  declaring  from  his  pulpit  that  the  couple  is  living  in  sin. 
American  automotive  engineers  add  ten  more  pounds  of  chromium  and 
twenty  more  unneeded  horsepower  to  their  next  year's  models,  and  the  com- 
pany business  executives,  who,  as  a  liberal  weekly  points  out,  are  the  masters 
of  the  engineers  and  the  real  villains  in  the  case,  add  another  two  or  three 
hundred  dollars  to  the  price  of  their  cars.  A  newspaper  editorial  points  out 
that  Americans  spend  more  money  on  cosmetics  than  they  do  on  books.  A 
sociologist  in  an  interview  gives  our  society  twenty  years  at  most  before  its 
final  destruction. 

I  have  in  the  above  paragraph,  which  could  be  indefinitely  expanded, 
mixed  the  high  and  the  low,  the  dignified  and  the  undignified,  quite  without 
ironic  intent.  It  is  surely  a  good  rigged  random  sample.  I  should  be  aston- 
ished if  anyone  could  read  it  in  this  mid-twentieth  century  without  experienc- 
ing at  least  a  trace  of  what  I  have  called  moral  indignation.  The  reading,  and 
the  train  of  associations  set  off  by  the  reading,  would  surely  also  bring 
to  many  at  least  a  trace  of  moral  satisfaction.  The  historian  of  morals  in  the 
West,  however,  is  pretty  well  forced  to  conclude  from  the  record  that  there 
is  in  this  human  world  of  ours  more  moral  indignation  than  moral  satisfaction, 
that  man  as  moralist  is  essentially  a  complainer.  It  is  always  easy  to 
recognize  man  the  moralist:  the  sequence  is  clear  to  an  observer,  and  can  be 
clear  to  the  willing  self-analyst.  First  the  experience — another  French  cabinet 
falls;  then  the  emotion,  which  may  run  from  tired  annoyance  to  refreshed 
anger;  then  the  blaming,  the  censuring — these  damn  fool  French,  why  can't 
they  .  .  . ;  then  the  doing  something  about  it — we  ought  to.  ...  Note 
carefully  that  in  this  sequence  there  is  little  room  for  any  attempt  to  "under- 
stand" why  that  cabinet  fell  in  the  first  place. 

Yet  this  analysis  of  the  moral  process  may  well  be  itself — in  fact,  it  is — 
stained  with  our  inescapable  human  nature,  or  at  least  with  the  nature  of  an 
"intellectual."  For  the  historical  record  is  for  the  most  part  made  by  the  kind 
of  people  we  must  call  intellectuals;  and  intellectuals  live,  succeed,  shine,  by 
making  us  all  aware  of  how  much  is  wrong  with  the  world.  This  statement 
would  appear  to  be  particularly  true  of  intellectuals  in  the  twentieth-century 
Western  world. 

Yet  it  will  not  do  to  exaggerate  the  gap  between  the  intellectual  and  his 
fellow  men.  There  are  many  definitions  of  man,  from  the  "forked  radish" 
and  the  "animal  with  opposable  thumbs,"  to  the  "image  of  his  Maker"  and 

A  History  of  Western  Morals 

the  "animal  that  knows  it  is  going  to  die."  Not  the  least  far-reaching  would 
be  simply:  the  moral  animal.  For  though  we  may  grant  to  the  physiologist 
that  the  emotions  of  man  are  bodily  functions  of  a  kind  that  go  on  also  in 
other  animal  bodies,  it  seems  unlikely  that  any  other  animal  is  stirred  to 
fear,  or  anger,  or  contentment  by  any  awareness  of  a  difference  between  right 
and  wrong,  justice  and  injustice.  We  may  fashionably  amend  the  old  phil- 
osophic tag  to  read,  "Nothing  in  the  intellect  unless  previously  in  the 
endocrines,"  but  there  in  the  intellect  stands,  nevertheless,  the  moral  inherit- 
ance of  our  species,  the  bewildering,  fascinating,  unavoidable  rights  and 
wrongs  of  our  past — and  present. 


It  should  be  clear  indeed  that  our  subject  is  full  of  difficulties  that  have  to  be 
called  philosophic.  The  semantic  grace  that  begins  so  many  books  in  these 
days  seems  especially  needed  in  a  history  of  morals.  I  shall  try  throughout 
this  study  to  make  consistent  use  of  three  closely  related  words  which  I  shall 
now  define,  not  as  all  readers  would  define  or  understand  them — such 
unanimity  about  the  full  meaning  of  words  of  this  sort  is  wholly  impossible  in 
the  modern  Western  world — but  not,  I  trust,  in  any  erratic  and  private  way. 
At  least  they  are  all  exceedingly  common  words,  so  common  that  not  even  the 
pure  in  taste  can  object  to  them. 

First,  I  shall  use  the  word  "conduct"  to  refer  to  the  reported  actions  of 
human  beings,  alone  or  in  groups.  The  historian,  of  course,  must  almost 
always  deal  with  reports,  usually  written  reports,  of  the  actions  or  events  with 
which  he  is  concerned;  such  reports  vary  in  accuracy,  but  the  historian  has 
at  his  command  ways  of  testing  their  accuracy,  ways  not  identical  with  those 
of  the  laboratory  experimenter  but  good  enough  so  that  he  is  justified  in  us- 
ing to  describe  these  actions  the  blessed  word  "facts."1  The  actions  that  make 
up  what  I  shall  call  "conduct"  cover  the  whole  range  of  human  capabilities, 
from  words  to  blows — and  detonations  of  bombs.  Perhaps  the  word  "con- 
duct" has  some  overtones  of  formality,  even  artificiality:  "conduct  in  the  bed" 
is  a  phrase  that  hardly  comes  naturally.  "Behavior"  is  certainly  a  very  close 
synonym,  and  may  seem  preferable  to  some.  But  in  the  form  "behaviorism" 
the  word  refers  to  a  specific  set  of  doctrines — or  dogmas — in  the  history  of 

1 1  forbear  further  discourse  on  the  nature  of  "facts,"  which  we  all  know  nowadays  is 
less  obvious  than  our  grandfathers  thought  it.  To  the  interested  reader  I  recommend 
a  meaty  little  essay  of  L.  J.  Henderson's,  "An  Approximate  Definition  of  Fact,"  Uni- 
versity of  California,  Publications  in  Philosophy,  XIV,  1932,  p.  179. 


formal  psychology,  to  the  work  of  a  whole  school  which  goes  far  beyond 
reporting  or  describing  human  conduct,  which  does,  indeed,  try  to  explain  and 
control  human  conduct.  I  wish  to  use  the  word  "conduct"  as  far  as  possible 
in  a  descriptive,  not  an  explanatory,  sense.  But  the  distinction  between  these 
two  words,  which  both  denote  human  doing,  is  perhaps  near  to  hairsplitting; 
both  "conduct"  and  "behavior"  quite  readily  take  those  indispensable  adjec- 
tives "good"  and  "bad." 

Second,  I  shall  use  the  terms  "ethics"  or  "ethical  principles"  to  refer  to 
the  statements  men  make  about  what  their  conduct,  or  the  conduct  of  others, 
or  of  both,  ought  to  be.  Only  the  very  self-conscious  semanticist  will  try  to 
pursue  that  word  "ought"  further;  it  is  surely  one  of  the  clearest  of  words, 
usually,  one  hopes,  clearer  to  the  individual  using  it  than  "is."  Much  of  the 
time  I  shall  use  the  words  "ethics"  and  "ethical"  to  designate  some  specific 
part  of  the  great  and  varied  body  of  formal  philosophical  writing  that  com- 
monly goes  under  that  name  and  that  is  well-enough  known  in  the  United 
States  as  the  subject  matter  of  college  courses  in  ethics.  Here  a  caution  is 
necessary.  Philosophers  have  built  up  a  tradition  that,  especially  in  the  field 
of  ethics,  commonly  does  not  list  as  philosophers  many  writers  who  seem  to 
a  layman  to  have  philosophized.  Nietzsche,  for  example,  usually  makes  the 
grade  as  a  philosopher,  perhaps  because  he  was  a  German  and  left  behind 
him  fragments  of  a  book,  The  Will  to  Power,  which  he  may  have  meant  to  be 
what  the  philosophers  call  a  systematic  treatise;  but  Pascal  does  not  often 
make  the  grade,  nor  does  Rousseau;  and  La  Rochefoucauld  almost  never 
makes  it.  These,  it  seems,  are  "men  of  letters,"  and  members  of  a  nation 
known  for  its  lack  of  philosophic  depth.  La  Rochefoucauld,  in  particular,  is 
usually  labeled  a  "moralist."  I  shall  here  pay  little  attention  to  such  distinc- 
tions, and  shall  treat  as  "ethics"  all  expressions  of  opinion  as  to  how  men 
ought  to  behave,  from  the  Mosaic  code  through  folk  proverbs  and  newspaper 
columns  of  "Advice  to  the  lovelorn"  to  the  Ethics  Mathematically  Demon- 
strated of  Spinoza,  which  last  is  a  singularly  lofty  flight  of  pure  philosophy. 

Third,  I  shall  use  "morals"  and  "morality"  in  a  somewhat  less  obvious 
sense,  but  one  that  seems  to  me  to  underlie  the  original  Latin  mos,  moris  and 
its  descendants  in  our  modern  Western  languages.  If  "conduct"  is  used  con- 
sistently to  indicate  what  men  do,  and  "ethics"  to  indicate  their  appraisal  of 
the  value  of  their  actions,  then  "moral"  may  be  used  to  sum  up  the  whole 
human  situation  involved  in  the  existence  of  both  conduct  and  evaluation  of 
conduct,  of  both  the  "is"  and  the  "ought"  in  human  awareness  of  past,  pres- 
ent, and  future.  Our  moral  awareness  is  a  state  of  tension  familiar  to  us  all, 

A  History  of  Western  Morals 

no  matter  what  our  religion  or  our  philosophy,  a  state  of  tension  summoned 
up  in  us  all  by  the  common-sense  word  "conscience."  I  realize  that  there  are 
all  sorts  of  difficulties  about  this  use  of  "morals."  For  one  thing,  such  a  use 
implies  that  what  I  call  "ethics"  has  some  effect  on  what  I  call  "conduct,"  and 
even  that  what  I  call  "conduct"  has  some  relation  to  what  I  call  "ethics";  both 
these  conclusions  have  been  rejected  by  some  thinkers,  simplifiers,  it  is  true, 
and,  like  the  solipsist,  at  the  extreme  or  lunatic  fringe  of  philosophic  thought. 
Most  of  us  would  agree  that  there  is  a  relation  between  human  thinking,  even 
about  ethics,  and  human  doing.  About  the  nature  of  that  relation  there  has 
always  in  the  West  been  great  dispute. 

Conduct,  ethics,  morals  are  not  here  used  to  stand  for  "real"  entities,  but 
as  instruments  of  analysis,  that  is,  of  convenience.  To  fall  back  as  one  must  in 
such  matters  on  a  figure  of  speech:  conduct,  ethics,  morals  are  not  like  so 
many  separate  islands  in  the  sea;  they  are  more  nearly  like,  but  not  just  like 
chemical  elements  which  combine  in  various  proportions  to  make  compounds, 
elements  moreover  never  or  rarely  found  in  a  pure  state  in  nature.  In  partic- 
ular I  wish  to  be  firmly  understood  as  not  here  maintaining  that  writers  I  have 
classed  as  primarily  concerned  with  ethics  are  therefore  concerned  with 
"mere"  words,  with  something  therefore  not  quite  real;  nor  do  I  maintain 
that  such  writers  are  wholly  concerned  with  the  "ought,"  with  standards  of 
value,  and  pay  no  attention  to  the  "is,"  to  the  ways  in  which  men  establish 
and  employ  standards  of  value.  The  great  systematic  philosophers,  an  Aris- 
totle, an  Aquinas,  a  Locke,  have  much  to  say  about  conduct  as  well  as  about 
ethics,  and  about  the  resolution  of  these  two  in  morals.  Even  in  the  sermon, 
where  the  preacher  is  making  a  special  use  of  human  awareness  of  the 
"ought,"  there  is  often  a  great  deal  of  information  for  the  historian  interested 
in  the  "is."  There  are,  of  course,  degrees  of  possible  concern  with  "pure" 
ethics  and  with  "pure"  conduct.  If  you  want  to  feel  the  difference  between 
the  two  extremes,  read  Kant's  Metaphysics  of  Ethics,  or  his  What  Is  Enlight- 
enment?, and  then  turn  to  any  clinical  case  history,  from  one  by  Hippocrates 
to  one  by  Freud  or  to  the  work  of  any  good  naturalist.2 

We  may  indeed  go  further  into  metaphor.  Morality  is  at  once  a  part  of 
man's  being  and  the  whole  of  it.  The  easy  metaphor  is  the  familiar  one  of  a 
strand,  a  thread,  interwoven  with  others  in  a  fabric  that  would  not  be  the 
fabric  it  is  without  all  the  threads.  But  the  part  of  morals  in  the  human  whole 

^Emphatically  not  to  naturalists  who  figure  in  most  histories  of  literature,  and  espe- 
cially not  to  Thoreau,  who  could  never  look  at  a  bird  without  seeing  the  universe — 
and  Henry  Thoreau. 


is  not  neatly  separable  by  the  mind's  eye  as  a  thread.  In  a  less  dignified 
figure  of  speech,  the  moral  is  simply  an  ingredient  in  a  mixture,  a  dish,  in 
which  the  ingredients  as  we  experience  them  are  inextricably  melted  or 
mingled,  not  to  be  separated  in  this  real  world,  but  only  in  the  unreal  world 
of  analysis — at  most,  to  be  subtly  distinguished  one  from  another  by  our 
moral  taste  buds. 

Thus  the  moral  in  our  human  situation  is  not  to  be  separated  from  the 
rest  of  our  universe;  yet  the  good  we  seek  as  moral  beings  is  not,  under 
analysis,  the  true  we  seek  as  thinking  beings,  nor  is  it  the  beautiful  we  seek 
as  emotional  beings.  Our  conventional  vocabulary  separates  these  as  well  as 
they  can  be  separated.  Our  universe  of  moral  discourse  does  not — I  nearly 
wrote  the  revealing  "should  not" — deal  with  terms  like  "truth,"  "common 
sense,"  "reason,"  nor  with  terms  like  "beauty,"  "taste,"  "manners,"  "civil- 
ity," but  with  terms  like  "good"  and  "evil,"  "justice"  and  "injustice,"  "strug- 
gle," "victory,"  "defeat,"  "conscience,"  "guilt"  As  moral  beings,  we  all 
bear  an  uneasy  burden  from  which  most  of  us  can  hardly  escape  with 
serenity  by  making  truth,  beauty,  and  justice  quite  synonymous — or  by 
separating  them  out  in  closed  compartments  of  meaning.  In  particular,  we 
cannot  avoid  thinking  about  morals,  yet  we  cannot,  peace  to  Spinoza,  think 
about  them,  demonstrate  them,  after  the  manner  of  mathematics. 

I  shall  try  to  adhere  to  the  common  use  in  matters  of  morals;  "good" 
evaluates  conduct  or  ethical  standards  as  morally  desirable,  "bad"  evaluates 
conduct  or  ethical  standards  as  morally  undesirable.  Both  words  have  also 
a  common  descriptive  use,  nicely  brought  out  in  a  casual  remark  about  a 
young  professor  who  could  never  be  relied  on  to  keep  appointments  or  serve 
on  committees  or  in  general  do  the  little  drudgeries  expected  of  him:  "Is 
Blank  really  good  enough  to  be  that  bad?"  Modern  ethical  philosophers  have 
been  very  conscious — justifiably  so — of  the  semantic  difficulties  of  these  and 
other  words  the  moralist  has  to  use:  "right,"  "wrong,"  "just,"  "unjust," 
"duty,"  "conscience,"  and  a  great  many  more.3 

The  historian  of  Western  morals  must  record  a  very  wide  range,  a  whole 
spectrum  of  specific  contents  of  recorded  conduct  and  recorded  ethics.  He 
must  also  note  that  there  is  a  persistent  belief  in  the  West  that  in  spite  of  this 
range — in  conduct,  for  example,  from  that  of  St.  Anthony  to  that  of  the 

3  The  reader  will  find  helpful  here  C.  L.  Stevenson,  Ethics  and  Language,  New  Haven, 
Yale  University  Press,  1945;  Richard  M.  Hare,  The  Language  of  Morals,  Oxford,  Ox- 
ford University  Press,  1952;  C.  D.  Broad,  Five  Types  of  Ethical  Theory,  New  York, 
Harcourt,  Brace,  1930. 

A  History  of  Western  Morals 

Marquis  de  Sade;  in  ethics,  from  the  belief  that  war  is  always  bad  to  the 
belief  that  it  is  always  good — there  is  really  both  in  conduct  and  in  ethics 
a  kind  of  center,  norm,  or  average  which  does  not  vary  much  with  place  or 
time.  Here  again,  however,  there  is  no  full  agreement  as  to  -just  where  the 
center  lies,  as  to  just  what  ordinary  human  nature  and  ordinary  human 
capacities  really  are.  All  this  will  be  clearer  as  our  story  progresses. 

But  first  I  must,  speaking  as  historian,  as  recorder,  note  that  from  the 
very  beginning  of  Western  history  in  Greece  and  in  the  Ancient  Near  East 
there  have  been  constantly  recurring  problems  in  ethics  that  have  not  in  three 
thousand  years  been  solved  to  the  common  satisfaction  of  all  men.  Can  the 
individual  really  choose  between  doing  what  he  thinks  good  and  what  he 
thinks  evil?  Is  it  right  for  the  individual  who  happens  to  be  born  a  Moslem 
to  have  several  wives,  but  wrong  for  the  individual  who  happens  to  be  born 
a  Christian?  Does  the  kind  of  thinking  you  who  are  struggling  with  these  lines 
are  now  doing  really  affect  your  conduct?  These  are  the  old  problems,  indeed, 
one  may  say  the  old  chestnuts,  of  freedom  of  the  will,  ethical  relativity,  and 
the  place  of  reason  in  human  conduct.  Socrates  and  his  friends  threshed  them 
all  out  long  ago;  one  may  say  that  in  the  first  book  of  Plato's  Republic  the 
principal  ethical  positions  Western  men  have  taken  are  already  clearly  stated. 
The  voice  of  Thrasymachus,  who  said  that  justice  is  what  you  can  get  away 
with,  but  said  so  rather  more  elegantly  than  this,  has  echoed  down  the  ages; 
but  so,  too,  has  the  voice  of  Socrates,  who  said  much  nicer  things  much  more 
nicely  about  justice.4 

Now  there  is  a  sense  in  which  to  say  that  these  and  similar  problems  have 
not  been  solved,  that  men  still  give  the  sorts  of  attempted  solution  to  them 
given  millennia  ago,  is  to  take  a  definite  philosophical  position  toward  them. 
I  have  above  tried  to  take  refuge  in  my  role  as  a  mere  historian,  a  mere 
recorder,  but  something  in  me — perhaps,  appropriately  enough  in  a  history 
of  morals,  my  conscience — compels  me  to  admit  that  no  refuge  will  do  in  the 
end.  The  historian,  like  the  scientist,  can  keep  awareness  of  these  and  similar 
problems  out  of  his  daily  work;  but  both  historian  and  scientist  are  human 
beings,  and  ethical,  indeed  metaphysical,  concern  is  part  of  the  human  con- 

Some  of  the  popularizers  of  a  current  of  contemporary  philosophy  for 

4  Polemarchus,  Thrasymachus,  Glaucon,  Adeimantus,  and  Socrates  himself  do  not,  of 
course,  exhaust  the  range  of  ideas  on  ethics,  but  they  do  sketch  the  outlines  of  what 
would  be  the  range  of  such  ideas  in  the  West,  from  confonmsm  and  traditionalism  to 
pragmatism,  opportunism,  and  idealism;  they  set  up  the  spectrum  in  its  broad  lines. 



which  there  is  no  good  name,  for  "logical  positivism"  will  not  quite  do,  have 
come  close  to  a  kind  of  skepticism,  even  nihilism,  about  ethical  propositions. 
Mr.  Stuart  Chase,  who  in  his  successful  Tyranny  of  Words  (1938)  would 
have  us  say  "blah-blah"  instead  of,  for  example,  "natural  rights,"  comes  close 
to  the  proposition  often  attributed  to  the  logical  positivists:  that  if  any  kind 
of  statement  cannot  be  tested  by  an  "operation,"  essentially  like  that  done 
by  a  natural  scientist  seeking  to  verify  a  theory,  it  is  "nonsense,"  and  had 
better  never  have  been  entertained  in  the  mind.  We  cannot  here  attempt  to 
disentangle  the  many  complexities  of  this  semantic  problem  as  it  appears  to 
our  age.  Suffice  it  to  note  that  there  is,  if  only  among  popularizers,  not  among 
true  philosophers,  a  current  tendency  to  put  all  statements  not  basically  like 
those  the  scientist  makes  ("empirically  verifiable,"  if  you  wish,  although 
these,  too,  are  weasel  words)  in  one  class  of  "nonsense,"  "drivel,"  somehow, 
unfortunately,  communicable  almost  as  if  it  were  rational  sense.5 

The  "blah-blah"  or  "no-nonsense"  school  of  popularizers  are,  no  doubt, 
extremists;  and  they  do  not,  of  course,  by  any  means  dismiss  from  their  con- 
cern— and  that  of  their  readers — the  age-old,  insoluble,  unavoidable, 
essential  problems  of  philosophy  they  claim  they  are  trying  to  get  rid  of 
entirely.  But  they  make  us  all  a  little  more  self-conscious  about  our  attitudes 
toward  these  problems,  I  feel  that  I  owe  the  reader  some  account  of  my  own 
attitudes  toward — most  emphatically  not  my  solution  of — some  of  these 
recurring  problems  of  ethics,  and,  therefore,  of  morals.  These  attitudes  are 
so  affected  by  my  training  as  a  historian  that  I  shall  hardly  seem  to  the  phi- 
losopher to  do  more  than  beg  the  question,  for  I  start  with  the  assertion  that 
on  these  great  problems  many,  perhaps  most,  thoughtful  men  in  the  West 
hospitably  accept  and  cherish  simultaneously  in  their  conscious,  not  just  in 
their  unconscious,  minds,  logically  quite  incompatible  conclusions.  For  the 
modern  Westerner  exposed  to  any  natural  science,  from  popular  to  pure,  it  is 
impossible  not  to  believe  in  some  sort  of  determinism;  but  it  is  also  impossible 
for  him  not  to  believe  in  some  sort  of  freedom  of  the  will.  He  therefore 

5  One  example  among  many.  The  discoverer  of  "Parkinson's  Law"  comments  on  the 
famous  passage  in  the  Social  Contract  in  which  Rousseau  states  his  problem  as  finding 
"a  form  of  association  ...  by  means  of  which  each,  coalescing  with  all,  may  never- 
theless obey  only  himself  and  remain  as  free  as  before"  as  follows:  "There  might  be 
no  great  harm  in  reading  this  piece  of  eighteenth-century  rhetoric  provided  that  the 
antidote  were  to  follow.  The  student  who  is  advised  to  read  drivel  should  at  least  be 
warned  that  it  is  drivel  he  is  being  asked  to  read  "  C.  Northcote  Parkinson,  The  Evo- 
lution of  Political  Thought,  London,  University  of  London  Press,  1958,  p.  10.  Profes- 
sor Parkinson's  antidote  to  drivel  turns  out  to  be  a  mixture  of  prehistory,  social 
anthropology,  and  comparative  history,  taken  in  a  fine  mood  of  faith  in  a  real  world 
of  no-nonsense. 

A  History  of  Western  Morals 

believes  in  both,  believes  that  he  has  a  will,  indeed  is  a  will,  not  to  be  further 
defined  in  physiological  terms,  which  makes  "free"  choices,  and  also  that  there 
is  an  unbroken  and  unbreakable  chain  of  cause  and  effect  in  the  universe,  of 
which  he  is  part.6 

It  is  true  that  there  are  various  systematic  ways  of  thinking  by  which  a 
Westerner  can  soften,  disguise,  or,  if  you  prefer,  reconcile,  these  logical 
opposites.  He  may,  for  instance,  believe  in  "determinism"  but  reject  "fatal- 
ism." Theology,  metaphysics,  ethics,  common  sense,  all  contribute  to  this 
process  of  reconciling  logical  opposites,  a  process  indispensable  for  almost 
all  of  us.  The  Vulgdrpositivismus  which  declares  that  such  activity  of  the  mind 
is  quite  unprofitable,  mere  nonsense,  cuts  itself  off  further  from  humanity 
than  does  the  most  otherworldly  of  idealisms.  Indeed,  a  system  like  the  fa- 
mous Hegelian  dialectic  of  thesis-antithesis-synthesis,  though  no  "operation" 
approaching  that  of  the  natural  scientist  can  be  performed  on  it,  is  a  kind  of 
recognition  that  human  beings  in  this  real  world  must  eat  their  cake  and  have 
it;  all  of  us  are  common-sense  Hegelians  and  common-sense  Benthamites 
when  we  need  to  be. 

So,  too,  with  the  old  problem  of  ethical  relativity.  It  was  impossible  even 
for  the  Greeks,  sure  as  they  were  that  their  own  ways  of  living  were  the  only 
right  ones,  to  deny  that  their  barbarian  neighbors  had  different  ways.  The 
first  few  generations  of  anthropologists,  not  unmoved  by  the  pioneering  sci- 
entist's desire  to  expose  the  errors  of  accepted  belief,  were  perhaps  too  insist- 
ent on  the  respectability  in  Africa  or  New  Guinea  of  conduct  shocking  to 
nineteenth-century  Western  man:  "The  Wadigo  regard  it  as  disgraceful,  or  at 
least  as  ridiculous  for  a  girl  to  enter  into  marriage  as  a  virgin."7  Indeed,  it 
has  never  been  possible  for  a  sane  Westerner  to  deny  that  human  conduct 
showed  unmistakable  variations  in  different  times,  places,  and  even  indi- 
viduals, and,  furthermore,  that  the  justification  or  evaluation  of  such  conduct, 
that  is,  ethics  in  our  sense,  also  varied  widely  and  unmistakably.  Yet  again 
it  has  been  difficult  for  most  Westerners  to  accept  full  radical  ethical  rela- 

6  Denis  de  Rougemont  has  put  with  epigrammatic  neatness  what  I  have  been  trying  to 
say:  in  these  "necessary  tensions"  (he  cites  "transcendence"  and  "immanence,"  "free- 
dom" and  "authority,"  and  others,  much  like  those  I  here  bring  up)  "the  two  terms 
are  true,  contradictory,  and  essential"  Man's  Western   Quest,   New  York,  Harper, 
1957,  p.  116.  Italics  mine.  Also  Arthur  Koestler,  "for  we  are  moving  here  through 
strata  that  are  held  together  by  the  cement  of  contradiction."  The  Invisible  Writing, 
Boston,  Beacon  Press,  1954,  p.  349. 

7  E.  Westermarck,  Origin  and  Development  of  the  Moral  Ideas,  2nd  ed.,  London,  Mac- 
millan,  1917,  Vol.  n,  p.  422,  quoting  from  O.  Baumann,  Usambara  (1891). 



tivism,  that  is,  the  doctrine  that  right  and  wrong  are  for  each  individual  what 
at  a  given  moment  he  thinks  or  feels  they  are.  The  polar-opposite  doctrine, 
that  right  and  wrong  are  absolute,  universals  unaffected  by  what  we  call  time 
and  place,  the  same  always  and  everywhere,  has  surely  been  at  least  as  far 
from  ordinary  Western  acceptance.  Nevertheless,  some  residual  belief  that  the 
distinction  between  good  and  evil  is  not  one  rooted  solely  in  human  conven- 
ience and  human  history,  but  has  something  to  do  with  the  structure  of  the 
universe,  has  in  our  world  survived  even  among  those  who  have  given  up  the 
Judaeo-Christian  belief  in  a  God  who  made  both  good  and  evil.  Most  West- 
erners today  would  surely  be  reluctant  to  accept  the  concept  of  "evil"  as  on 
a  level  with  the  concept  of  "weed,"  neither  more  nor  less  absolute,  neither 
more  nor  less  built  into  the  structure  of  the  universe,  neither  more  nor  less 
a  matter  of  our  convenience.8 

Our  third  old  chestnut  of  a  problem,  though  it,  too,  is  as  ancient  as  the 
Greeks,  looks  today  a  bit  fresher,  which  is  to  say  that  the  debate  about  it  is 
livelier  than  that  about  free  will  or  ethical  relativism.  The  unpalatable  ex- 
tremes are  there:  the  intellectualist  doctrine  that  at  least  potentially  men 
can  reason  logically,  even,  as  Spinoza  held,  mathematically,  about  the  dis- 
tinctions between  right  and  wrong,  arrive  at  demonstrably  correct  and  per- 
fectly communicable  conclusions  about  them,  and,  finally,  make  their  conduct 
conform  to  the  results  of  their  reasoning;  and  the  anti-intellectualist  doctrine 
that  reason  is  in  these  matters  of  conduct  either  quite  helpless,  or  at  most  the 
"slave  of  the  passions,"  that  all  reasoning  is  rationalizing,  that  even  if  phi- 
losophers could  agree — and  they  cannot  agree — as  to  standards  of  right  and 
wrong,  even  the  philosophers,  let  alone  the  rest  of  us,  would  still  follow  drives, 
urges,  impulses,  instincts,  sentiments,  species-specific  acts,  conscious  and 
unconscious.  Though  perhaps,  in  terms  of  metaphysical  concern,  this  question 
of  the  role  of  reason  in  morals  is  as  insoluble  as  our  others,  the  inevitable 
compromises  men  make  about  it  in  their  own  minds  are  in  these  days  at  least 
fairly  obvious.  Few  of  us  can  dismiss  the  work  of  two  generations  of  psy- 
chologists and  go  back  to  what  really  was  the  common  belief  of  the  eighteenth- 
century  Enlightenment,  that  is,  that  only  bad  environment,  especially  faulty 

8 1  make  the  above  statement  in  full  awareness  that  it  is  infinitely  debatable,  and  can 
be  misleading  But  I  do  think  it  is  a  statement  that  can  help  focus  the  problem  of 
ethical  relativity.  Thistles  and  roses  sub  specie  aeternitatis— perhaps  even  sub  specie 
Linnaei — are  not  what  they  are  to  gardeners.  But  liars  and  honest  men?  Or  even  Hitler 
and  Lincoln?  Surely  in  ethical  matters  are  we  not  reluctant  to  think  of  ourselves  as 
mere  cultivators  of  our  gardens? 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

education,  mistaken  religious  training,  and  bad  political  and  economic  insti- 
tutions, prevents  all  men  from  thinking  alike  on  ethical  matters,  and  from 
adapting  their  conduct  to  the  results  of  their  thinking.  We  agree,  if  not  with 
the  Freudians,  at  least  with  much  of  Freud,  that  the  obstacles  to  clear  think- 
ing and  to  acting  in  accord  with  such  thinking  are  much  more  complex  and 
persistent  than  our  predecessors  thought  they  were.  We  are  alerted  to  the 
presence  everywhere  of  rationalizing,  wishful  thinking,  propaganda,  preju- 
dice, brainwashing,  motivational  research,  and  other  evidences  that  the  world 
is  not  yet  the  world  Condorcet  foresaw,  nor  even  the  world  young  H.  G.  Wells 

Yet  a  chastened  belief  in  the  uses  of  the  instrument  of  thought  has  sur- 
vived modern  anti-intellectualism.  Indeed,  in  precisely  the  field  of  ethics 
we  are  here  concerned  with,  our  century  has  seen  the  rise  not,  perhaps,  of  a 
"school"  in  the  old  sense,  but  of  a  number  of  writers  on  ethics  who — though 
they  might  not  like  it  put  this  way — seem  to  have  as  a  common  aim  the 
salvaging  of  a  place  for  reason  in  the  establishment  of  ethical  standards  for  the 
effective  guiding  of  human  conduct.9  It  is  no  longer  fashionable,  and  probably 
was  never  quite  possible,  to  "think  with  the  blood."  We  shall,  in  short,  here 
concern  ourselves  with  ethics,  with  "ideas"  about  good  and  bad,  right  and 
wrong,  with  "values,"  with  no  worries  lest  we  are  dealing  with  "mere  froth 
on  the  surface  of  the  waves,"  nor  even  with  "mere  superstructure."  Morality 
is  a  relation  between  ethics  and  conduct  in  human  societies,  a  relation  that 
always  includes  what  we  may  here  unworriedly  call  "thinking,"  or,  more  self- 
consciously, some  sort  of  activity  in  the  frontal  lobe  of  the  brain. 

Whether  this  is  a  causal  relation  and  if  so  what  kind  of  causal  relation  are 
most  certainly  questions  of  the  kind  we  have  above  called  "old  chestnuts."  In 
its  simplest  form,  one  much  influenced  by  popular,  or,  rather,  pseudo-, 
Marxism  in  our  day,  the  question  can  be  put:  Do  ethics — that  is,  ideas  about 
what  a  person's  conduct  should  be — cause,  or  initiate,  or  at  least  affect  that 
person's  conduct?  I  have  elsewhere  suggested  that  such  questions,  if  not, 
perhaps,  to  be  dismissed  as  "meaningless,"  as  the  purveyors  of  popular 
semantics  like  to  do,  can  at  least  be  bypassed  with  profit  by  the  historian, 
much  as  the  engineer  and,  one  suspects,  a  good  many  physicists  bypass 

9  C.  L.  Stevenson,  Ethics  and  Language,  is  a  good  sampling,  and  through  its  notes  and 
references  a  good  guide  to  recent  work  in  the  field.  See  also  the  list  of  "pertinent 
literature"  in  Arthur  Pap,  Elements  of  Analytic  Philosophies,  New  York,  Macmillan 
1949,  pp.  64-65.  ' 



certain  questions  of  an  "ultimate"  kind  as  to  the  nature  of  matter,  energy,  and 
the  like.10 

A  concrete  case  should  be  useful  here  to  dismiss  this  problem,  and  pre- 
pare the  way  for  a  somewhat  different  problem,  our  sources  of  information 
about  the  conduct  of  men  in  the  past,  which  will  concern  us  in  the  next  section 
of  this  chapter.  In  the  troubles  over  desegregation  in  the  South  of  the  United 
States,  troubles  touched  off  by  the  Supreme  Court  decision  of  1954  that  seg- 
regation in  public  schools  is  unconstitutional,  it  is  quite  clear,  is,  indeed,  a 
"fact,"  that  a  number  of  Negroes  in  many  Southern  towns  and  cities  want 
desegregation  and  are  actively  organized  to  try  to  get  it.  They  are  refusing 
to  accept  a  specific  kind  of  social  and  political  inequality.  But  that  kind  of 
inequality  is  condemned  as  wrong  in  almost  all  the  sources  of  ideas  about  the 
nature  of  our  society  available  to  the  educated  or  partly  educated  Negro. 
Certainly  there  are  other  reasons  for  the  conduct  of  these  Negroes  than  their 
training  in  American  ethics  (I  am  here  deliberately  using  these  terms  as  I 
have  earlier  defined  them) .  But  surely  is  it  not  absurd  to  expect  that  they  can 
be  so  trained,  exposed  in  a  society  like  ours  to  creeds  and  codes  like  the 
preamble  to  the  Declaration  of  Independence,  the  Bill  of  Rights  and  the  like, 
and  to  the  constant  examples  of  the  American  drive  toward  many  specific 
kinds  of  social  equality  with  which  all  our  cultural  life  is  filled,  and  then 
calmly  accept  the  status  of  an  Uncle  Tom?11  Surely  can  we  not  now  reject 

!0  In  my  The  Shaping  of  the  Modern  Mind  (New  York,  New  American  Library, 
1953,  p.  9),  I  suggest  that  the  automotive  engineer  does  not  ask  whether  the  spark 
or  the  gasoline  "causes"  the  motor  to  run,  or  whether  spark  or  gasoline  is  more  "im- 
portant," or  "fundamental."  Applied  to  the  present  problem  of  the  relation  between 
"ideas"  and  "interests,"  "drives,"  "material  conditions,"  "sentiments,"  this  analogy  no 
doubt  presents  all  the  shocking  weaknesses  of  such  imprecise  uses  of  the  human  mind. 
But  T  do  not  mean  to  suggest  that  the  "ideal"  is  the  spark  and  the  "material"  the 
gasoline,  nor  vice  versa.  All  I  mean  to  suggest  is  that  as  for  the  engineer  no  internal 
combustion  engine  without  both  gasoline  and  spark,  or  their  equivalents,  as  in  diesel 
engines,  so  for  the  historian:  he  can  fearlessly  assert  that  nothing  happens  in  history 
without  the  presence  of  both  ideas  and  material  conditions.  In  concrete  instances  of 
human  conduct,  it  is  no  doubt  useful  to  try  to  estimate  the  part  played  in  such  con- 
duct by  intellectual  elements  and  the  part  played  by  emotional  elements;  but  no  for- 
mula will  work  for  an  average  or  generalized  case.  Compare  Stevenson,  "To  ask 
whether  beliefs  in  general  direct  attitudes  in  general,  or  whether  the  causal  connection 
goes  rather  in  the  opposite  direction,  is  simply  a  misleading  question."  (Stevenson, 
Ethics  and  Language,  p.  5.) 

11 1  had  just  come  to  review  and  possibly  revise  the  above  sentences  when  I  found  the 
following:  A  Negro  businessman  in  Montgomery,  Alabama,  comments:  "We've  got 
the  fatherhood  of  God,  the  brotherhood  of  man,  the  Bill  of  Rights,  the  United  States 
Supreme  Court,  American  democracy  and  democratic  principles  and  sentiment,  Re- 
publican and  Democratic  sympathy,  national  politics  and  world  history  all  on  our 
side."  New  York  Times,  December  29,  1957,  Section  VI,  p.  38. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

the  despairing  innocence  of  an  Orwell?  Even  with  constant  repetition  from 
above,  the  Orwellian  slogan  "All  men  are  created  equal,  only  some  are  more 
equal  than  others"  will  not  always  work  on  the  underdog.  Motivational 
research  has  not  yet  quite  eliminated,  or  explained,  moral  man. 

It  is  tempting  to  go  on  to  a  much  broader  generalization  that  ideas  about 
human  equality,  the  "dignity  of  man,"  and  the  like  have  played  a  part  in 
other  risings  of  underdog  groups,  at  least  since  with  the  Stoics  and  the 
Christians  such  ideas  clearly  enter  the  record.  But  the  record  of  what  the 
underdog  thought  and  felt  is  so  incomplete!  We  know  that  most  members  of 
the  National  Association  for  the  Advancement  of  Colored  People  are  aware 
of  the  ideas  of  Thomas  Jefferson  on  human  equality,  that  they  feel  the  kind 
of  pressures  toward  egalitarianism  our  culture  exerts.  But  we  have  no  infor- 
mation as  to  what  went  on  in  the  mind  even  of  a  leader  like  Spartacus  in  the 
so-called  slave  revolt  of  the  first  century  B.C.  We  know  that  he  was  a  Thra- 
cian,  perhaps  enslaved  by  force,  and  that  he  was  clearly  a  leader,  a  "su- 
perior." But  had  he  ever  heard  of  Stoic  ideas  on  human  equality,  which, 
though  stated  somewhat  coldly  and  abstractly,  are  clear  and  far-reaching? 
Had  his  followers  any  glimmering  of  such  ideas?  We  just  do  not  know.  It  is, 
however,  most  unlikely  that  thousands  of  Spartacists  could  have  held  to- 
gether as  a  fighting  group  unless  some  of  them  had  "ideas"  about  what  they 
were  doing  there  in  their  fortified  camp  in  the  crater  of  Vesuvius. 

Even  for  the  Middle  Ages  we  do  not  have  by  any  means  the  kind  of  in- 
formation needed  to  be  certain  that  Christian  ideas  on  equality  played  a  part 
in  risings  of  the  underdogs.  But  there  are  intriguing  straws  of  evidence,  on 
which  the  not-too-cautious  mind  can  build.  The  well-known  slogan  of  the 
English  Peasant  War  of  the  fourteenth  century 

When  Adam  delved  and  Eve  span 
Who  was  then  the  gentleman? 

would  seem  to  be  evidence  that  the  Christian  holy  writings  were  playing  then 
the  revolutionary  role  they  have  so  often  played — and  which  is  so  obviously 
there,  built  into  them.  With  the  sixteenth  century  we  do,  however,  begin  to  get 
a  great  deal  of  the  necessary  information  about  what  the  active  participants 
in  social  and  political  movements  wanted. 

I  have  dwelt  perhaps  too  long  on  this  problem  of  the  part  "ideas"  play  in 
human  conduct;  but  I  confess  to  harboring  the  hope  that  some  of  my  readers 
may  at  least  worry  it  over  a  bit  in  their  minds.  For  it  seems  to  me  that  most 
educated  and  interested  Americans,  or,  at  any  rate,  many  such,  do  accept  un- 



critically  certain  attitudes  toward  this  problem,  attitudes  I  find  unrealistic  and 
perhaps  unprofitable.  Put  negatively,  there  is  the  common  American  attitude 
that  "abstract"  ideas  in  particular  are  mere  disguises  for  real,  hard  motives; 
put  positively,  there  is  the  attitude  that  these  real,  hard  motives  are  limited  to 
the  kind  of  rational  self-interest  the  economist  takes  as  his  starting  point — and 
ending  point — that  the  great  clue  to  all  human  conduct  is  in  the  old  tag  cut 
bono,  with  the  bonum  very  clear,  very  material,  preferably  hard  cash.  Now  I 
am  willing  for  the  moment  to  assume  the  correctness  of  the  view  of  human 
nature  that  lies  behind  these  attitudes — a  view  rather  oddly  close  to  some 
aspects  of  Christian  pessimism  and  remote  from  the  attitude  of  the  Enlight- 
ened— but  I  insist  that  in  real  life  these  basic  drives  or  urges  or  what  you  will 
emerge  into  actual  human  conduct  only  through  a  long  process  which  involves 
sentiments,  emotions,  symbols,  "ideas,"  some  of  them  very  "abstract,"  like 
the  idea  that  abstract  ideas  have  no  activating  part  in  human  conduct.  I  dare 
not  here  attempt  any  refutation  of  these  great  national  beliefs  of  ours.  For  one 
thing,  I  have  been  much  snubbed  by  my  countrymen  for  displaying  my  igno- 
rance of  the  realities  of  life.  Only  a  few  months  ago  a  ranger  in  the  Craters  of 
the  Moon  National  Monument  crushed  my  suggestion  that  perhaps  the  In- 
dians pitched  their  tepees  in  a  particularly  Dantesque  spot  in  the  monument — 
pure  devilish  black  lava — because  men  have  always  been  fascinated  by  any 
hell  that  moves  them  religiously;  on  the  contrary,  he  insisted,  they  came  there 
because,  in  spite  of  the  apparent  desolation  of  the  spot,  it  really  was  full  of 
game  that  came  there  to  drink  from  pools  accumulated  in  the  contorted  lava. 
He  may  well  have  been  right;  but  there  are  not  always  pools  in  the  lava  flow, 

I  submit,  as  a  mere  parting  shot  or  so,  that  though  the  phrase  "abstract 
ideas"  has  in  our  contemporary  culture  a  pejorative  sense,  we  usually  mean 
by  abstract  ideas  those  we  dislike,  or  do  not  share,  or  are  somewhat  ashamed 
of  confessing  we  entertain.  I  am  not  even  wholly  persuaded  that  American 
G.I.'s  in  our  last  two  wars  were  quite  as  contemptuous  of  the  noble,  the  good, 
and  the  true  in  our  war  aims  as  the  investigators  insist  they  were.  There  is  a 
long  and  dignified  Western  masculine  tradition  of  concealing  the  nobler  senti- 
ments except  in  epic  or  dramatic  moments.  And  as  for  the  common  American 
belief  in  the  economic  interpretation  of  everything,  this,  too,  is  partly  a  pose, 
and  even  more  a  habit  of  thought  which  has  hopelessly  ennobled  economic 
activity  into  a  form  of  the  agon,  and  thus  quite  removed  from  it  the  nice  ra- 
tionalism of  self-interest  with  which  economic  theorists  still  tend  to  endow  it. 

There  remain  a  few  more  introductory  explanations  about  which  I  shall 
try  to  be  specific.  I  have  already  said  that  morals  are  not,  under  analysis, 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

identical  with  manners,  nor  even  in  quite  simple  discourse  "related  to,"  or 
"a  variety  of,"  manners.  The  student  of  human  conduct  cannot,  however, 
hope  to  work  effectively  with  the  kind  of  precise  systematic  terms  the  taxo- 
nomic  biologist,  for  instance,  must  insist  upon.  Human  thought  and  feeling 
about  manners  and  morals  clearly  do  not  separate  them  rigorously;  "good" 
and  "bad"  do  the  needed  work  in  both  realms  of  discourse.  There  is,  indeed, 
commonly  among  Westerners  a  feeling  that  morals  are  concerned  with  loftier 
matters;  that  taste,  at  least  in  the  fine  arts,  is  concerned  with  less  lofty  but  still 
serious  and  important  matters;  and  that  taste  in  cookery  and  other  not-fine 
arts  is  a  rather  low  thing,  and  manners  in  the  sense  of  civility  somehow 
basically  an  artificial,  ideally  unnecessary,  though  actually  important,  thing. 
Yet  there  is  nothing  like  agreement  in  the  West  on  such  usage,  and  the  above 
sentence  could  hardly  have  been  written  save  by  an  American.  An  English- 
man or  a  Frenchman,  though  he  might  well  agree  that  morals  are  at  the  top 
of  this  particular  order  of  rank,  would  surely  rewrite  the  rest  of  the  sentence 
— and  not  in  the  same  way.  Everywhere  there  are  individuals  who,  by  the 
test  of  what  symbols  arouse  their  indignation — we  are  here  well  beyond 
simple  animal  rage — find  matters  of  taste  at  least  as  important  as  matters  of 
morals.  Even  in  the  United  States,  where  the  finest  of  arts  is  not  quite  as 
dignified  a  matter  as  morals,  there  are  those  who  find  crooners  more  evil  than 

Indeed,  the  kind  of  mind  that  likes  to  stretch  words  into  great  blankets 
could  claim  that  a  history  of  morals  is  necessarily  a  complete  history  of  all 
human  activity.  In  the  sense  I  am  here  giving  to  "morals" — the  relation  be- 
tween ethics  and  conduct — it  seems  clear  that  man  is  inevitably  a  moral 
creature,  and  the  only  one.  For  man  alone  is  capable  of  the  kind  of  thinking 
— "symbolic  thinking,"  a  now  generally  accepted  phrase,  will  do  well  enough 
here — which  can  produce  an  ethics.  I  certainly  do  not  propose  in  this  book 
to  consider,  as  so  many  treatises  on  ethics  do,  the  moral  sense  in  the  higher 
animals.  I  grant  that  a  scolded  dog  can  look  guilty,  but  in  my  use  of  the  term 
the  dog  cannot  have  ethics  and  therefore  cannot  be  moral  or  immoral,  simply 
because  he  is  incapable  of  symbolic  thinking.  You  can  say  "naughty  dog," 
and  your  dog  will  "understand"  you:  but  no  two  dogs  ever  discussed  together 
whether  "naughty"  is  a  relative  or  an  absolute,  or  even  whether  in  a  given 
instance  the  use  of  "naughty"  was  just  or  unjust. 

I  shall  not  here  attempt  to  study  in  detail  the  morals  of  our  prehistoric 
Western  ancestors  directly  or  by  analogy  with  the  primitive  peoples  the 
anthropologist  studies;  nor  shall  I,  save  incidentally,  study  the  morals  of  chil- 



dren.  These  studies  are  of  great  importance.  In  the  long  reaction  (which  may 
have  passed  its  peak)  against  the  late  eighteenth-century  belief  in  the  power 
of  right  thinking  to  change  rapidly  and  completely  the  conduct  of  large 
numbers  of  men,  it  has  come  to  seem  probable  that  human  conduct  is  influ- 
enced by  our  biological  as  well  as  our  cultural  inheritance  from  the  millennia 
before  Plato  and  Isaiah,  and  by  our  immediate  interpersonal  relations  with 
our  parents,  siblings,  and  child  companions,  much,  much  more  than  by  our 
cultural  inheritance  from  the  last  twenty-five  centuries  of  Western  history. 
Moreover,  all  that  anthropologists,  prehistorians,  and  psychologists  have  be- 
gun to  find  out  begins  to  look  rather  fundamental,  rather  hard  to  change.  But 
such  studies  have  really  only  just  begun,  and  can  hardly  yet  be  incorporated 
into  a  history  of  this  kind.  I  am,  furthermore,  quite  incompetent  through  lack 
of  training  to  appreciate  critically  the  literature  in  these  fields.  I  shall  there- 
fore begin  in  the  old-fashioned  way,  after  a  hopeful  nod  to  the  anthropol- 
ogists, with  the  peoples  of  the  Ancient  Near  East  and  the  Greeks. 

I  shall  not  attempt  to  write  about  the  moral  history  of  peoples  other  than 
those  generally  understood  nowadays  as  Western.  Here,  again,  this  limiting 
choice  is  by  no  means  a  sign  that  I  think  the  story  of  the  ethics  and  the 
conduct  of  the  Chinese,  the  Japanese,  the  Hindus,  the  Aztecs,  and  all  the  rest 
unimportant.  It  is  a  sign  partly  of  my  own  ignorance  and  partly  of  my  de- 
liberate intention  to  keep  this  book  within  manageable  limits  of  length,  for 
the  reader's  sake  as  well  as  my  own.  Furthermore,  it  seems  to  me  clear  that  a 
history  of  Western  morals  need  not  be  greatly  concerned  with  what,  in 
Toynbee's  words,  we  know  as  "contacts  between  civilizations."  The  fact  is 
that  in  the  time  and  places  covered  by  the  old  classic  school  sequence  of 
Ancient,  Medieval,  and  Modern,  the  "cultural  narcissism"  clear  in  the  Greek 
distinction  between  "Hellenes"  and  "Barbarians"  has  been  the  pattern  for  the 
West.  No  doubt  -within  the  West  itself  the  narrow  limits  of  the  national  or 
racial  in-group  have  never  in  historic  times  kept  out  for  long  "foreign"  influ- 
ences. Juvenal  was,  for  a  Roman  satirist,  reasonably  accurate:  the  Syrian 
river  Orontes  did  flow  into  the  Tiber,  though  in  the  long  run  it  turned  out  to 
be  even  more  important  that  the  Jordan,  too,  flowed  into  the  Tiber.  But 
though  there  were  faint  contacts  between  Rome  and  China,  though  with  the 
Polos  and  da  Gama  and  Columbus  the  West  began  its  expansion,  Europe  and 
the  Near  East  did  not  really  "learn" — and  in  particular  did  not  learn  morality 
— from  the  peoples  they  subdued,  traded  with,  and  taught  so  much.  Even 
today,  the  Yangtze  and  the  Ganges  by  no  means  empty  into  the  Hudson — nor 
does  the  Volga. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 


The  historian  of  morals  must  try  to  find  out  what  the  actual  conduct  of  all 
sorts  and  conditions  of  men  has  been.  He  encounters— or  so  it  seems  to  one 
engaged  in  the  effort — even  more  difficulties  than  does  the  historian  of  pol- 
itics, war,  economic  activity,  and  other  human  pursuits.  Some  of  these  diffi- 
culties, both  in  getting  source  material  and  in  organizing  what  he  does  get,  are 
worth  brief  attention  here. 

Especially  for  the  conduct,  but  also  for  the  ethics,  of  the  ordinary  man, 
reliable  information  is  hard  to  come  by,  and  sometimes,  as  in  the  early  medi- 
eval centuries,  almost  wholly  lacking.  The  problem  is  real  enough  for  the 
sociologist  or  the  psychologist  studying  contemporary  and  recent  societies. 
It  is  perhaps  sufficient  to  ask  the  question:  How  near  the  real  truth  of  the 
actual  sexual  conduct  of  representative  or  typical  mid-twentieth-century 
American  men  and  women — let  alone  of  the  universal  "male"  and  "female" 
of  his  titles — did  the  late  Dr.  Kinsey  get?  But  we  do  have  such  studies,  and 
since  about  1750  increasingly  elaborate  and,  to  be  fair,  increasingly  accurate 
statistics  about  a  great  deal  of  human  conduct,  good  and  bad,  of  great  value 
to  the  historian  of  morals.  We  have  no  such  wealth  of  evidence  for  earlier 
periods.  It  would  be  rash  indeed  to  entitle  a  book  "The  Sexual  Behavior  of 
the  Human  Male  in  the  Roman  Empire."  We  know  reliably  enough  that  the 
Greeks  did  expose  newborn  children,  especially  females,  but  we  can  hardly 
pretend  to  give  statistics  as  to  what  proportions  were  so  exposed,  or  what,  if 
any,  were  the  variations  by  class,  city-state,  or  period  of  time.12 

Nevertheless,  there  are  sources  from  which  with  caution  it  is  possible  to 
get  rough  notions  of  the  actual  conduct  not  only  of  the  upper  or  ruling 
classes,  but  also  of  ordinary  men  and  women.  The  conclusions  based  on  such 
sources  cannot,  it  must  be  insisted,  satisfy  anything  like  the  going  standards 
of  the  social  scientist  concerned  with  the  conduct  of  human  beings  in  con- 
temporary society;  and  if  the  precedents  of  the  last  few  centuries  of  historical 
investigation  hold  for  the  future,  our  successor  will  do  better  than  we  can  hope 
to  do.  Dire  predictions  that  we  shall  not  get  any  more  facts  about,  say,  well- 
worked  periods  like  the  English  Middle  Ages  have  so  far  not  come  true. 

The  most  important  body  of  information  for  us  surely  lies  in  the  great 
body  of  Western  literature.  For  the  purposes  of  the  historian  of  morals,  almost 

12  But  for  an  interesting  attempt  to  reconstitute  something  like  statistics,  using  the  com- 
paratively objective  and  nonliterary  source  afforded  by  inscriptions,  see  W.  W.  Tarn, 
Hellenistic  Civilisation,  London,  Arnold,  1927,  p.  87.  The  inscriptions  are  those  of  the 
third  and  second  centuries  B.C. 



none  of  it  is  without  value.  Some  of  it,  however,  presents  very  great  dangers 
for  the  interpreter.  These  dangers  are  greatest  in  the  writings  commonly  cata- 
logued as  dealing  with  morals.  An  extreme  case  often  proves  most  illuminat- 
ing. The  Roman  satirists,  Horace,  Martial,  Juvenal,  and  the  rest,  were  gifted 
writers  indeed.  To  judge  from  their  writings,  Romans,  and,  in  particular, 
upper-class  Romans,  spent  most  of  their  time  in  fornication,  gluttonous  eat- 
ing, drunkenness,  langorous  hot  baths,  backbiting,  informing,  betraying  (heir 
friends,  imitating  and  exceeding  the  example  set  by  the  corrupt  Greeks  and 
Syrians — in  short,  setting  something  like  a  record  in  iniquity.  Here  is  a  good 

Who  now  is  loved,  but  he  who  loves  the  Times, 

Conscious  of  close  Intrigues,  and  dipt  in  Crimes; 

Lab'ring  with  Secrets  which  his  bosom  burn, 

Yet  never  must  to  publick  light  return? 

They  get  reward  alone  who  can  Betray: 

For  keeping  honest  Counsel  none  will  pay.  .  .  . 

The  Barbarous  Harlots  crowd  the  publick  Place: 

Go,  Fools,  and  purchase  an  unclean  embrace; 

The  painted  Mitre  court,  and  the  more  painted  Face.13 

The  pattern  thus  set  has  had  many  imitators  in  the  West  ever  since.  Yet  it  is 
as  certain  as  anything  of  the  sort  can  be  that  Juvenal  and  his  fellows  cannot 
be  taken  as  reliable  authorities  for  the  actual  conduct  even  of  the  Roman 
upper  classes  who  read  their  work.  The  sensitive,  the  indignant,  especially 
when  they  have  literary  gifts — the  Orwells,  the  Koestlers — are  untrustworthy 

The  difficulty  here  is  central  and  familiar  to  readers  of  newspapers — and 
one  hopes  to  their  writers.  The  really  wicked  deed  is  much  more  interesting 
than  ordinary  conventional  behavior;  it  is  news.  In  my  brief  service  with  the 
federal  government  I  had  occasion  to  make  an  "evaluation"  of  the  horrendous 
reports  of  what  French  Resistance  groups  were  doing  to  the  occupying  Ger- 
mans in  1943. 1  began  my  report  with  the  suggestion  that  it  was  dangerous 
to  generalize  for  all  of  France  from  the  fact — if  it  was  a  fact— that  a  truck- 
load  of  German  soldiers  on  the  way  to  a  movie  in  Orleans  had  been  bombed. 
I  suggested  that  even  what  the  army  called  "intelligence"  was  subject  to  the 
ways  of  journalism;  the  headline  is  "Banker  found  in  love-nest,"  never  "Ten 
thousand  bankers  spend  night  at  home."  My  analogy  was  found  unsuited 

is  The  reader  will  find  the  whole  gamut  run  in  this  Third  Satire  of  Juvenal's.  I  have 
quoted  from  Dryden's  good  liberal  translation. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

to  the  dignity  that  should  mark  government  reports,  but  I  assume  that  my 
point  was  made. 

To  this  basic  fact,  that  the  exceptional  is  more  interesting  than  the 
usual,  and  the  exceptionally  wicked  especially  interesting,  there  must  be 
added  other  facts  about  the  literary  that  make  some  of  the  greatest  monu- 
ments of  literature  quite  untrustworthy  for  our  purposes.  It  is  again  an 
observed  and  continually  observable  fact  that  the  writer,  as  perhaps  the  most 
characteristic  intellectual,  shows  to  the  full  a  characteristic  of  the  Western 
intellectual  tradition,  the  tendency  to  use  the  mind  to  exhort,  to  correct,  to 
complain,  to  do  with  the  written  word  a  great  deal  that  has  indeed  to  be  done, 
that  is  surely  worth  doing,  but  that  is  not  reporting  the  results  of  accurate 
observing  so  organized  as  to  distinguish  clearly  between  the  exceptional  and 
the  usual,  and  degrees  in  between.  This  last  sentence  was  written  heavily  and 
cautiously.  I  may  risk  more  brevity:  just  man  watching,  a  task  much  harder 
than  bird  watching,  is  rare  among  moralists.  Moreover,  the  writer  in  recent 
times,  and  to  a  degree  throughout  Western  cultural  history,  has  felt  himself 
shut  out  from  ordinary  men  by  his  superior  sensitiveness,  or  superior  bright- 
ness, or  some  other  superiority.  Where  he  is  not  tempted  to  exhort  or  com- 
plain, he  is  then  often  tempted  to  shine.  The  aphorist,  La  Rochefoucauld,  for 
example,  or  Nietzsche  at  his  best,  however  admirably  they  say  certain  things 
— "true"  things,  even — are  particularly  unreliable  as  reporters  of  what  ordi- 
nary people  are  like,  and  of  what  such  people  believe  to  be  right  and  proper. 
Or,  to  underscore  the  obvious,  the  introductory  paragraphs  of  the  New 
Yorker  do  not  do  the  job  of  man  watching  for  our  contemporary  United 
States.  Even  the  Reader's  Digest  is  probably  a  better  man  watcher. 

Yet  it  must  be  repeated  that  the  whole  body  of  Western  literature  is  a 
priceless  store  of  source  material  for  the  historian  of  morals.  He  cannot  begin 
to  know  this  whole  body,  not  even  indirectly  through  literary  histories.  He 
can  but  sample.  On  the  whole,  the  most  useful  genre  from  our  present  point 
of  view  is  the  novel  and  its  analogues — Chaucer's  Canterbury  Tales,  for 
example,  and  even  some  of  the  epics — where  the  writer  sets  himself  up  as 
observer  and  narrator  rather  than  as  moralist.  The  great  histories,  of  course, 
are  useful,  more  so  when  they  are  the  work  of  a  restrained  and  conscientious 
moral  philosopher  like  Thucydides  or  a  bright  but  not  too  Voltairian  a  story- 
teller like  Herodotus  than  when  they  are  the  work  of  a  deeply  injured  moralist 
like  Tacitus,  or  a  soured  one  like  Henry  Adams.  There  is  a  residue  of  obser- 
vation of  actual  human  conduct  even  in  the  work  of  writers  whom  the  French, 
who  used  to  be  masters  of  the  genre,  call  moralistes.  La  Rochefoucauld's 



"There  are  those  who  would  never  have  loved  had  they  not  heard  love  talked 
about"  is  penetrating  though  clever;  note  that  La  Rochefoucauld  wrote 
"loved,"  not  "made  love." 

With  the  beginning  of  printing  in  the  fifteenth  century  and  of  journalism 
in  the  seventeenth,  the  record  of  human  activity  of  all  sorts  in  the  West  begins 
to  be  very  complete;  with  the  beginnings  of  statistics  and  of  the  behavioral  or 
social  sciences  in  the  eighteenth,  it  begins  to  be  better  organized.  There  are 
still  gaps  and  difficulties,  but  what  the  historian  calls  source  material  is  for 
these  centuries  almost  too  abundant.  Moreover,  the  technological  revolutions 
of  the  modern  West  have  also  been  revolutions  in  scholarship.  The  labors  of 
generations  of  scholars  have  unearthed  a  great  deal  of  information  about  the 
Western  past,  so  that  even  though  the  past — especially  the  Greco-Roman 
past — may  be  gradually  pushed  out  of  higher  education,  there  is  already  on 
our  great  library  shelves  an  accumulation  of  "facts"  about  this  culture  that 
would  have  amazed,  delighted,  and  perhaps  disillusioned  a  humanist  of  the 

The  historian  of  morals  will  find  in  the  work  of  social  historians  one  of 
his  most  valuable  sources  of  material  on  what  ordinary  men  and  women  have 
done.  Social  history  is  often  an  amorphous  mass  of  details,  but  it  is  a  splendid 
mine — or,  rather,  heap  of  tailings — in  which  the  historian  of  morals  will  find 
much  good  ore.  It  is  not  an  altogether  new  kind  of  history;  Herodotus  was 
a  fine  social  historian.  But  it  offered  the  nineteenth  century  a  convenient  re- 
pository for  much  information  about  the  past  the  scholars  were  digging  up, 
and  which  couldn't  be  fitted  anywhere  else.  A  work  like  Ludwig  Friedlander's 
Roman  Life  and  Manners  under  the  Early  Empire,  though  it  seems  to  have 
hardly  any  structure  and  barely  even  a  point  of  view,  brings  together  in  one 
place  an  immense  amount  of  fragmentary  information  about  what  the  Ro- 
mans were  doing.  There  are  many  others  of  the  sort. 

The  great  problem  remains:  How  can  these  odds  and  ends  of  facts  be  put 
together?  Is  there  a  describable  normal  human  conduct  in  a  given  time  and 
place?  Certainly  in  the  sense  of  a  statistical  mean  or  average,  let  alone  a 
distribution  curve,  there  is  not  much  use  in  the  historian's  attempting  to 
achieve  anything  of  the  sort.  I  have  already  noted  as  a  warning  the  work  of 
the  late  Dr.  Kinsey.  We  do,  however,  constantly  try  to  form  notions  of  the 
typical,  the  normal,  the  "ideal,"  if  you  do  not  object  to  the  word,  where  we 
lack  not  so  much  facts  for  the  mind  to  work  on  as  a  good,  reliable  guide  or 
tool  for  the  mind  to  work  with.  The  scientist  has  in  mathematics  such  a  tool. 
The  humanist  will  maintain  that  he  has  tradition-developed  methods  which, 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

aided  by  intuitive  familiarity  with  the  human  activities  he  is  studying,  and 
supported  by  scholarly  conscientiousness  and,  if  possible,  by  a  little  common 
sense,  will  enable  him  to  draw  not  wholly  invalid  generalization  out  of  even 
imperfect  or  incomplete  data.  The  humanist  may  well  be  right.  I  shall  do  my 
best  in  this  book  to  live  up  to  his  standards. 

Our  supply  of  material  information  in  the  field  of  ethics  is  abundant,  even 
for  the  earlier  periods  of  written  Western  history.  The  historian  of  formal 
philosophy  must  regret  lacunae,  such  as  the  lack  of  works  of  the  pre-Socratics, 
or  of  whole  texts  of  the  two  great  founders  of  the  rival  schools  of  ethics, 
Epicurus  and  Zeno  the  Stoic.  It  would  be  a  great  addition  to  our  heritage 
to  have  more,  for  instance,  from  the  Heraclitus  who  could  leave  the  brilliant 
fragment  "character  as  fate."  Still,  the  historian  of  ideas  can  hardly  complain 
that  he  does  not  know  what  Greek  and  Roman  formal  philosophers  thought 
about  the  good  life.  Man  is  an  incurably  moral  animal,  and  almost  every 
written  record,  and  much  of  his  other  records,  such  as  the  fine  arts,  give  some 
hint  as  to  what  he  thought  good  and  what  he  thought  evil.  Formal  philosoph" 
ical  ethics  are  probably  a  much  less  unreliable  guide  to  what  ordinary  men 
thought  right  and  proper  than  it  is  fashionable  in  certain  intellectual  circles 
even  now  to  admit.  But  we  can  supplement  the  work  of  ethical  philosophers 
by  much  that  unquestionably  does  touch  the  lives  of  ordinary  men — codes  of 
conduct  for  religious  groups,  law  codes,  folk  wisdom  and  its  reflection  in  such 
works  as  Franklin's  Poor  Richard,  folk  art  of  various  kinds,  and  a  great  deal 
of  the  literature  I  have  mentioned  above  as  a  source  of  information  about 
the  conduct  of  ordinary  men.  Special  care,  of  course,  needs  to  be  taken  in 
special  cases;  the  harsh  criminal  law  codes  of  most  Western  European  coun- 
tries in  the  eighteenth  century,  for  instance,  are  by  no  means  a  reliable  indi- 
cation of  what  anybody  thought  was  right  and  proper  at  the  time.  Nor  from 
the  fact  that  in  popular  literature  at  most  times  and  places  in  the  West  the 
cuckolded  husband  is  a  lamentable  figure,  the  wife  and  the  lover  quite  ad- 
mirable ones,  would  it  be  safe  to  conclude  that  ordinary  men  and  women 
really  felt  adultery  to  be  an  ethical  good. 

But  abundant  though  our  information  about  what  Westerners  have  con- 
sidered to  be  ethically  good  and  ethically  bad  may  be,  the  problem  of  organ- 
izing this  information  is  at  least  as  difficult  as  for  actual  human  conduct.  The 
problem  of  the  typical  or  normal,  and  of  the  nature  and  extent  of  variations, 
remains  a  serious  one  for  the  study  of  the  ideal  as  for  the  study  of  the  actual, 
as  difficult  for  the  study  of  attitudes  as  for  the  study  of  performance.  Here 
there  can  hardly  be  mention  of  statistical  treatment.  It  would  be  wonderful 



to  have  the  results  of  a  properly  conducted  public-opinion  poll  of  attitudes 
in  times  past.  What  did  the  English  think  about  "corruption"  under  Walpole 
in  1734?  What  did  Parisians  think  about  the  St.  Bartholomew's  massacre  in 
1572  (strongly  approve,  mildly  approve,  mildly  disapprove,  strongly  disap- 
prove, don't  know)?  What  did  they  think  about  the  same  event  a  hundred 
years  later?  Two  hundred  years  later?  Three  hundred  years  later?  Of  course, 
one  cannot  give  even  retrospective  guesses  in  terms  of  figures.  Londoners  may 
have  disapproved  more  strongly  of  Walpole's  regime  of  graft  in  1834  than  in 
1734;  there  should  have  been  more  "don't  knows"  in  1834  than  in  Walpole's 
own  lifetime,  for  the  British  have  the  gift  of  forgetting  the  less  noble  parts  of 
their  past.  Parisians  would  probably  have  shifted  from  approval  to  disap- 
proval of  St.  Bartholomew's  Eve  by  1772.  In  spite  of  the  humane  aspects  of 
nineteenth-century  culture,  it  is  possible  that  the  poll  in  1872  would  show 
some  rise  in  approvals  over  the  one  in  1772,  for  the  great  French  Revolution 
had  reawakened  religious  fears  and  hatreds.  I  feel  pretty  sure  that  even  after 
four  centuries  the  "don't  knows"  of  indifference  or  ignorance  would  not  have 
increased  greatly  in  Paris,  for  the  French  feel  fully  the  weight  of  their  history. 

But  these  guesses  little  befit  so  serious  a  matter  as  history,  which  can 
hardly  afford  to  indulge  in  the  relaxation  of  putting  itself  in  the  conditional 
mood.  I  shall  try  in  this  book  to  achieve  by  the  methods  of  the  humanist  rea- 
sonably good  generalizations — not  mere  guesses — about  the  moral  prefer- 
ences of  men  in  past  times.  In  particular,  I  shall  try  to  rescue  this  study  from 
the  rag-bag  incoherence  of  much  social  history  by  trying  to  describe  as  con- 
cretely as  possible  the  varieties  of  what  men  have  held  up  as  the  admirable 
human  being — the  moral  ideal,  to  use  a  good,  simple,  concrete  term.14 

Word  trouble  looms  here,  of  course.  "Hero"  is  an  obvious  possibility; 
but  that  word  is  stained  by  Carlyle's  private  misuse  of  it,  and  has,  moreover, 
much  too  specific  associations  with  simple  early  societies  and  noble  cultures 
to  do  what  is  necessary  here.  Words  like  "type,"  "pattern,"  or  some  com- 
pound of  "figure,"  as  in  "father-figure,"  seem  to  me  either  too  flat  or  too 
closely  associated  with  the  vocabulary  of  formal  psychology.  As  for  the 
"admirable,"  I  shall  not  mind  if  you  prefer  the  "enviable"  human  figure, 
though  I  should  think  it  better  to  add  enviable  to  admirable,  for  admiration 
and  envy  often  go  together,  though  one  or  the  other  may  be  a  mere  trace,  in 
the  human  soul.  The  word  "ideal"  has  also  the  advantage  that  it  at  least 

i4  W.  E.  H.  Lecky  in  his  introductory  chapter  to  the  History  of  European  Morals  from 
Augustus  to  Charlemagne  (New  York,  Braziller,  1955,  Vol.  I,  pp.  153  ff.)  has  some 
interesting  remarks  on  what  he  calls  "moral  types"  and  "rudimentary  virtues."  (Two 
volumes  are  in  this  edition  printed  as  one,  paged  as  two.) 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

suggests  that  the  admired  figure  is  not  any  single  human  being.  Of  course,  the 
ideal  can  sometimes  be  "embodied"  in  a  real  living  person,  or  in  a  fictitious 
character  who  is  quite  as  much  a  living  person.  Achilles  embodies  or  person- 
ifies much  of  the  old  Greek  ideal.  Abraham  Lincoln  does  so  for  Americans. 
But  there  remains  a  residue  no  one  real  figure  can  quite  encompass.  If  it  is  at 
all  possible  to  make  sensible  generalizations  about  the  American  ideal — and 
the  old  problem  of  accurate  generalization  is  most  acute  in  problems  of 
national  character  in  our  modern  world — the  final  form  or  picture  must  be 
a  composite  to  which,  in  addition  to  Lincoln,  Henry  Ford,  Jefferson,  Wash- 
ington, and  even  Emerson  make  their  contributions.  It  is  tempting  to  add  to 
this  list  Paul  Bunyan,  Babe  Ruth,  and  Gary  Cooper,  with  Marilyn  Monroe 
thrown  in  for  good  measure. 

This  last  remark  suggests  a  further  difficulty.  Even  if  you  grant  that  with 
due  caution  and  by  adding  all  sorts  of  variations  for  nationality,  class,  reli- 
gion, even  personality,  one  can  arrive  at  a  most  complicated  picture,  there 
will  still  remain  the  question:  Is  this  what  people  really  admired,  or  did  they 
merely  say  they  admired  it,  thought  it  proper  to  admire  it,  but  actually  ad- 
mired something  else,  something  very  different?  Or  in  terms  I  have  been 
using  in  this  book,  is  this  a  purely  ethical  ideal,  wholly  an  "ought"  without 
any  influence  over  the  "is,"  and  therefore  not  really  a  moral  ideal  in  which 
the  "ought"  and  the  "is"  are  organically  related?  There  is  a  point  of  view 
from  which  such  a  question  is  wholly  unanswerable,  and,  indeed,  presump- 
tuous. No  one  can  get  inside  another  person,  be  another  person. 

But  all  science  is  presumptuous,  as  the  Greek  Prometheus  and  the 
Hebrew  Job  learned  long  ago,  with  very  different  results,  at  the  beginnings 
of  our  story;  the  social  sciences  are  even  more  presumptuous  than  the  natural. 
We  shall  have  to  go  ahead  with  as  little  as  possible  of  the  pride  that  makes 
presumption.  In  daily  life  we  all  encounter  in  others  the  contrast  between 
what  is  said  and  what  is  done,  a  contrast  that  in  particularly  glaring  and  un- 
pleasant circumstances  we  call  "hypocrisy."  Now  the  hypocrite,  who  by  defi- 
nition knows  he  does  one  thing  and  says  another  and  contrary  thing,  is  much 
rarer  than  is  commonly  supposed.  For  the  most  part,  by  a  system  the  psychol- 
ogist calls  our  "defenses"  we  actually  manage  to  keep  the  inconvenient  reality 
which  contrasts  with  the  pleasant  ideal  altogether  out  of  our  minds,  or,  at  any 
rate,  out  of  our  consciousness.  Not  by  any  means  always.  The  naive  notion 
occasionally  professed  in  the  West  that  all  ethics  is  hypocrisy  is  nonsense. 
Significantly  enough,  the  complementary  notions  that  all  actual  human  con- 
duct is  of  a  piece,  not  to  be  judged  as  good  or  bad,  but  just  taken  as  "mate- 



rial,"  or  that  actual  human  conduct  really  is  as  ethics  states  it  should  be,  and 
evil  an  illusion,  have  hardly  ever  been  held  here  in  the  West.  We  do  not  in 
daily  awareness  usually  divorce  what  I  call  "ethics"  and  what  I  call  "con- 

Once  again,  a  concrete  example  should  help.  The  Christian  saint  was  one 
of  the  ideals  of  the  Middle  Ages,  an  ideal  that  spilled  over  in  part  on  just 
ordinary  churchmen.  But  in  the  contemporary  French  popular  tales  known 
as  the  fabliaux,  in  the  amusing  wood  carvings  on  the  choir  stalls  which  often 
make  fun  of  the  monks  who  propped  themselves  up  on  them  during  the  long 
services,  in  the  works  of  a  Chaucer  or  a  Boccaccio,  in  page  after  page  of 
the  interesting  miscellany  of  medieval  documents  assembled  by  the  late 
G.  G.  Coulton,  there  is  unmistakable  evidence  of  popular  irreverence  toward 
the  clergy.16  Priests  and,  more  especially,  monks,  appear  as  fornicators,  liars, 
gluttons,  drunkards,  idlers,  hypocrites.  Did  the  medieval  peasant  and  towns- 
man then  at  heart  reject  the  Christian  ethical  ideal?  Was  their  true  moral 
preference  for  something  a  good  deal  more  worldly,  not  to  say  fleshly,  than 
the  saint?  Did  they  perhaps  most  admire  the  outlaw,  the  rebel  against  con- 
ventional standards,  the  Robin  Hood?  These  questions  I  hope  to  struggle 
with  in  their  proper  place  in  our  story;  here  I  pose  them  as  examples  of 
difficulties  that  face  us. 

The  difficulty  here  may  be  partly  overcome  by  trying  to  distinguish  be- 
tween admiration  and  envy  in  particular  instances,  for  admiration  is,  in 
common  usage,  considered  good,  and  envy  bad.  Neither  good  nor  bad — this 
is  a  clich6 1  have  not  yet  permitted  myself,  but  it  is  a  sound  and  unavoidable 
cliche — is  often  found  in  human  conduct  in  the  simple  and  mutually  exclu- 
sive state  they  are  often  found  in  ethics;  they  are  mixed,  though,  again,  almost 
always  in  varying  proportions,  which  can  be,  not  mathematically  weighed  or 
measured,  but  humanly  weighed  and  measured.  For  the  human  ideal  type  of 
a  given  culture,  men  almost  always  feel  a  kind  of  admiration  not  necessarily 
unmixed  with  envy,  but  an  admiration  that  makes  them  even  in  their  secret 
conscience  unaware  or  at  least  unashamed  of  the  tincture  of  envy  present. 
Thus  the  Greeks  admired  Achilles;  thus  we  admke  Lincoln.  In  our  American 

is  I  realize  that  there  are  in  our  Western  tradition  pantheistic  and  universalist  philoso- 
phies and  theologies  which  get  rid  of  evil  completely — and  sometimes  of  good  also: 
and  I  know  that  the  followers  of  Mrs.  Eddy  find  illusory  much  that  the  rest  of  us  find 
only  too  real.  But  I  think  that  those  who  deny  the  reality  of  evil  are  much  more 
nagged  by  something  inside  themselves  that  rejects  this  world  view  than  are  those  who 
deny  the  reality,  or,  at  any  rate,  the  prevailing,  of  good.  The  pure  pessimists  seem 
perversely  to  enjoy  their  metaphysics  more  than  do  the  pure  optimists, 
i*  Life  in  the  Middle  Ages,  four  volumes  in  one,  New  York,  Macmillan,  193 1. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

culture  the  gangster  hero  is  envied  for  his  success,  his  wealth,  his  fame,  but  he 
is  not  admired  as  a  moral  ideal.  One  good  test  is  that  failure  ruins  a  gangster 
with  all  but  the  most  fanatically  devoted  of  his  "admirers";  there  are  no 
martyrs  save  among  the  good. 

The  problem  of  the  winning  scoundrel  is  certainly  a  real  one.  I  should  not 
question  for  a  moment  the  common  verdict  that  Satan  comes  out  for  many 
readers  as  the  hero  of  Milton's  Paradise  Lost.  But  Satan  in  this  poem  is  by 
no  means  what  I  mean  by  a  "moral  ideal"  in  the  West.  The  old  Latin  tag  puts 
the  matter  more  clearly:  Video  meliora  proboque;  deteriora  sequor.17  Poor 
Ovid  has  had  a  bad  press.  I  think  he  really  meant  this,  as  I  think  another 
rather  spotted  moral  being,  La  Rochefoucauld,  meant  his  basically  identical 
statement:  Hypocrisy  is  the  tribute  vice  pays  to  virtue.18  Our  morals  are  as 
real  as  our  digestion;  the  good  and  bad  no  more  and  no  less  mysterious  in 
one  than  in  the  other. 

There  will  be  a  long  line  of  these  ideal  figures  or  patterns,  none  of  them 
to  be  treated  without  qualifications,  without  some  question  as  to  how  uni- 
versal their  appeal,  how  real  the  esteem  in  which  they  were  held  by  various 
groups  in  the  community.  These  figures  will  inevitably  be  varied  and  in  one 
sense  disparate,  since  the  degree  of  moral  dignity,  the  extent  to  which  they 
seem  to  reflect  conduct  as  well  as  ethics,  and  much  else  about  them  will  not 
be  the  same.  We  shall  encounter  the  Homeric  hero,  the  beautiful-and-good 
of  the  Golden  Age  of  Greece.19  We  shall  have  to  measure  the  Roman  citizen- 
soldier-country  gentleman  of  the  great  days  of  the  Republic,  the  Christian 
saint,  the  Renaissance  man  of  virtu,  the  French  aristocrat  of  the  best  days  of 
Louis  XIV,  the  English  gentleman,  the  French  philosophe  of  the  eighteenth 
century,  the  Prussian  Junker,  the  Byronic  artist,  the  pure  scientist,  the  Ameri- 
can frontiersman  or  "pioneer,"  and  many  others.  They  will  not  be  as  real  as 
the  flesh-and-blood  individuals  who  figure  in  narrative  history,  nor  as  varied 
and  as  complex.  But  we  can  hope  they  will  prove  quite  as  interesting.  And 
they  are  even  more  important,  for  they  are  a  distillation  of  men's  hopes  and 
fears.  They  are  the  guides,  the  myths,  the  symbols,  of  which  our  hope-ridden, 

if  Ovid,  Metamorphoses,  VII,  20.  (I  see  the  better  course  and  approve  it;  I  follow  the 

i*Maximes,  No.  218. 

!9  kalokagathia.  This  deceptively  ordinary  phrase  has  been  the  despair  of  genera- 
tions of  translators;  it  is,  of  course,  untranslatable.  So,  too,  are  virtu  and  philosophe, 
which  also  appear  on  this  list.  I  shall  try,  as  such  terms  arise,  to  make  their  meaning 
clear  in  a  translation  which  will  be  necessarily  a  periphrasis;  but  I  shall  often  use  the 
original  terms  in  the  text,  preferring  exactness  to  good  taste,  these  two  being,  unfor- 
tunately, not  always  identical. 



fear-ridden  age — or  at  least  the  prophets,  publicists,  and  analysts  of  our  age 
— are  so  conscious. 

This  concept  of  a  moral  ideal  will,  I  hope,  help  tie  together  in  some  kind 
of  unity  the  diverse  materials  of  this  book.  I  shall  also  make  frequent  use  of 
a  unifying  concept  worth  brief  semantic  notice  here,  for  I  do  not  find  quite 
the  right  word  or  phrase  in  common  American  usage:  I  am  going  to  make 
much  use  of  the  word  "agon."  Western  men  have  always  striven  among 
themselves,  as  individuals  and  as  groups.  Our  own  society  likes  to  use  the 
term  "competition,"  and,  especially,  the  misleading  term  "free  competition," 
which  have  for  our  purposes  here  much  too  narrow  connotations  from  eco- 
nomics. "Conflict"  is  a  good  and  necessary  word — and  thing — but  its  use 
might  to  some  readers  carry  the  suggestion  that  men  commonly  fight  for 
the  sake  of  fighting,  that  they  are  "naturally"  bellicose,  competitive,  instinc- 
tively and  masculinely  inclined  to  mauling.  So,  no  doubt,  are  many  men.  But 
I  prefer  to  emphasize  by  my  choice  of  words  what  they  fight,  or  compete,  for; 
this  I  hope  to  achieve  in  part  by  borrowing  from  the  Greek  the  word  "agon" 
(dywv),  which  I  shall  translate,  with  an  ironic  glance  at  the  social  Darwinists, 
as  the  "struggle  for  prize." 

The  agon  was  originally  the  formal  religiously  ritualized  assembly  of  the 
Greeks  to  witness  their  games,  and  only  later  came  to  mean  any  struggle,  trial, 
or  danger,  which,  given  overtones  of  harshness  and  pain,  made  the  word 
agorua  (aywla)  and  our  own  "agony."  But  simply  as  agon,  the  word  can  carry 
a  great  and  complex  weight  of  meaning — the  desire  of  men  to  gain  honor 
and  esteem  by  winning  out  in  competition  with  their  fellows,  the  need  for 
ritual  recognition  of  such  achievement,  the  need  for  rules  of  the  game,  for  a 
code,  in  short,  for  morality — since  a  genuine  free-for-all,  "nature  red  in  tooth 
and  claw,"  is  simply  not  humanly  enjoyable,  not  even  bearable,  for  long — 
the  reality  of  conflict,  of  bitter,  heart-rending  struggle  even  when  it  is  so 
regulated  and  moralized,  the  pain,  the  tragedy  (agonia)  of  success  as  well 
as  of  failure,  the  driving  animal  force  of  living  that  makes  even  "blessed  are 
the  meek"  a  kind  of  battle  cry,  man's  need  of  much,  so  unreasonably  much. 
No  single  word  or  phrase  can  carry  all  the  weight  of  human  nature;  that  is 
why  the  struggle  for  life,  the  class  struggle,  competition,  co-operation,  the 
lust  for  wealth,  the  will  to  power,  the  will  to  shine,  the  desire  of  the  moth  for 
the  star,  cannot  sum  up  what  makes  us  what  we  are.  I  do  not  claim  for  "agon" 
a  magic  I  deny  these  other  terms.  I  use  it  in  this  book  largely  because  I  think 
that,  especially  for  American  readers,  who  are  likely  to  have  inclinations 
toward  a  misleadingly  innocent  economic  interpretation  of  human  conduct, 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

toward  the  often  naive  cut  bono,  it  may  help  redress  the  balance  toward 
recognition  of  the  great  part  ritual  combat  or  competition,  fully  integrated 
with  religious  and  moral  sentiments,  has  played  in  our  Western  past,  and 
still  plays  in  our  Western  present.  The  agon,  originally  knightly  and  heroic, 
has  spread  to  the  fuE  range  of  human  interests,  from  head-hunting  to  the 
acquisition  of  honorary  degrees.  It  seems,  indeed,  to  have  played  a  part  in 
that  extraordinary  phenomenon  of  our  contemporary  Western  society  the 
rise  in  the  birth  rate  among  the  comfortably  off.  To  have  many  children  is  to 
give  proof  of  being  fully  adjusted;  and  adjustment,  oddly  enough,  perhaps, 
after  all,  democratically  enough,  has  become  a  prize  in  the  agon. 


This  introduction  must  not  swallow  the  book.  We  are  all,  in  contrast  to  most 
of  our  Victorian  predecessors,  so  aware  of  the  gaps  between  ethics  and  con- 
duct, or,  more  fundamentally  and  specifically,  so  aware  of  the  inadequacy  of 
the  explanations  of  human  nature  and  human  conduct — and  the  consequent 
anticipations  of  future  human  conduct — which  the  Victorians  took  over  from 
the  eighteenth-century  Enlightenment,  that  I  am  tempted  to  call  here  at  least 
part  of  the  whole  roll  of  questions  at  issue:  What,  if  anything,  does  the  term 
"moral  progress"  mean?  What  is  there  in  the  old  debate  on  "heredity  versus 
environment"  for  the  historian  of  morals?  Is  there,  perhaps,  some  foundation 
for  the  vulgar  modern  notion  that  problems  of  morals  are  essentially  problems 
of  sex,  and  is  that  notion  exclusively  modern  or  exclusively  vulgar?  How 
important  is  the  structure  of  classes  in  a  given  society  and  its  distribution  of 
incomes  for  the  historian  of  morals?  Was  Weber  right  about  Calvinist  ethical 
justification  for  worldly  wealth? 

Many  of  these  problems  will  come  up  in  their  due  place  in  this  study. 
Here  we  must  as  a  last  introductory  word  note  that  for  the  historian  of  morals 
and  of  ethics  on  the  one  hand  and  of  religion  and  of  theology  on  the  other, 
there  arises  another  one  of  these  intricate  problems  of  breaking  down  in 
analysis  a  relation  so  close  as  to  be,  in  real  life  for  real  people,  a  felt  unity. 
The  old  debate  as  to  whether  religion  and  morals  can  be  divorced  ought  at 
least  to  be  somewhat  affected  by  what  seems  to  me  to  be  the  fact  that  in 
Western  experience  they  never  have  been  divorced.  Such  a  statement  does, 
indeed,  imply  a  definition  of  religion  that  by  no  means  all  Westerners  will 
accept.  I  consider  that  in  addition  to  the  classic  revealed  monotheisms  of  the 
West,  Jewish,  Christian,  and  Moslem,  and  the  classic  polytheisms  of  Greece 



and  Rome  and  the  much  less  classic  ones  of  Germans,  Celts,  and  Slavs,  there 
has  been  a  whole  series  of  what  the  eighteenth  century  liked  to  call  "natural" 
religions  for  which  it  is  difficult  to  find  a  good  common  term.  I  am  being 
quite  fashionable  today  when  I  note  modern  Marxism  as  one  of  these  religions 
without  a  supernatural  godhead.  What  the  Marxist  believes  about  the  nature 
of  the  universe — his  religion — seems  to  me  to  have  some  relation  to  what  he 
believes  about  the  nature  of  man  and  his  place  in  that  universe — his  morals. 
The  same  is  true  of  the  positivist,  the  rationalist,  the  member  of  an  ethical- 
culture  society,  and  all  the  other  varieties  of  what  M.  Raymond  Aron  calls  a 
"secular  religion."  Here  again  a  final  warning:  I  shall  not  assume  either  that 
a  man's  religion  "determines"  his  moral  beliefs  and  practices  or  that  a  man's 
moral  beliefs  and  practices  "determine"  his  religion.  Once  more,  they  are 
mutually  dependent. 

But  difficulties — difficulties  of  securing  from  all  my  readers  that  suspen- 
sion of  moral  indignation  I  wish  as  a  historian  of  morals  to  obtain  as  often  as 
possible — force  me  to  use  another  pretentious  term,  one  most  offensive  to 
the  purist  in  language.  Since  words  like  "religion"  and  "theology"  applied, 
say,  to  modern  Western  nationalism,  or  to  Marxism,  or  to  any  form  of  En- 
lightenment clearly  do  offend  many  Christians,  I  shall  reluctantly  fall  back 
at  times  on  that  horrid  Germanism  "world  view"  (Weltanschauung) .  No  the- 
ist,  I  think,  will  deny  that  the  Marxist,  or  even  the  Enlightened  democrat,  has 
at  least  a  world  view;  and  we  need  not  pay  much  attention  to  the  Marxist  or 
other  Enlightened  when  they  say  they  have  no  such  thing,  but  merely  a  way 
of  finding  the  truth — scientific  truth.  Everyone  who  tries  to  read  this  book 
has  a  world  view,  or  a  set  of  world  views;  indeed,  I  suspect  that  world  views 
are  held  by  those  well  down  in  that  already  old-fashioned  order  of  rank  we 
call  the  I.Q. 

We  are  ready,  then,  to  embark  on  a  brief  survey  of  a  phase  of  Western 
history  that  with  the  imperialistic  drive  so  natural  to  man  I  am  here  tempted 
to  call  the  most  important,  the  most  essential,  phase  of  that  history.  But  I  will 
settle  for  less:  the  history  of  morals  is  simply  an  important,  difficult,  and 
relatively  neglected  part  of  that  history. 


Origins:  The  Ancient  Near  East 

book  about  a  phase  of  ancient  Egyptian  culture  which  he  entitled  The  Dawn 
oj  Conscience^  Breasted's  love  for  his  subject  led  him  to  claim  for  the 
Egyptians  a  priority  that  is  hardly  theirs.  It  is  indeed  quite  possible  that  the 
Jews  found  in  earlier  Egyptian  writings  the  basis  for  much  of  the  "wisdom 
literature"  of  the  Old  Testament.  It  may  even  be  possible  to  claim  for  the 
Egyptians  the  first  recorded  examples  of  men  thinking  about  ethical  prob- 
lems, though  the  specialist  in  Mesopotamian  studies  might  maintain  that  the 
creation  myths  of  that  area,  which  may  well  be  at  least  as  old  as  anything  of 
the  sort  we  have  from  Egypt,  show  men  definitely  aware  of  moral  good  and 
moral  evil,  and  their  implications  for  conduct. 

We  need  not  here  take  sides  on  this  issue,  for  the  actual  dawn  of  con- 
science— it  must  have  been  a  very  gradual  one — is  hopelessly  lost  in  pre- 
history. At  a  minimal  definition,  the  notion  of  conscience  demands  an  aware- 
ness of  a  future.  Homo  sapiens  must  have  had  that  awareness  very  early  in 
his  evolution,  if  not  from  the  very  beginning.  With  that  awareness  there  must 
have  come  long,  long  ago  the  symbolic  expression  of  a  mood  Robert  Frost 
put  into  our  words  just  yesterday  in  his  familiar  poem  "The  Road  Not  Taken" 
from  Mountain  Interval.  The  man  of  the  Stone  Ages  must  have  regretted  that 
he  took  one  road,  not  the  other:  this  is  surely  the  dawn  of  conscience.  These 
men  were  moral  beings,  and  had  a  moral  history,  but  that  history  will  never 
be  written.  The  skeletal  remains  and  the  tools  and  other  artifacts  which  give 
i  New  York,  Scribner,  1933. 


Origins:  The  Ancient  Near  East 

us  all  the  information  we  are  likely  to  get  about  these  men  and  women  simply 
do  not  answer  the  kind  of  question  the  historian  of  morals  must  ask.  It  is 
quite  clear,  for  instance,  that  axes  and  arrows  were  used  to  kill  human  beings 
as  well  as  game,  but  we  do  not  know  how  the  killers  felt  about  the  Trilling. 
It  seems  likely  that  some  primitive  ancestors  of  Western  men  did  not  fight 
much;  but  were  they  moral  pacifists?  Anthropological  studies  of  modern 
"primitives"  permit  a  very  safe  inference  that  at  least  within  a  specific  in- 
group  the  ethical  concept  enshrined  in  our  word  "murder"  existed  among 
these  men  of  the  Stone  Ages.  We  can  on  the  same  basis  make  a  good  many 
inferences,  such,  for  instance,  as  that  they  did  not  take  sex  in  their  stride;  they 
must  have  worried  about  it,  talked  about  it,  and  would,  if  they  could,  have 
written  about  it. 

All  our  sound  knowledge  of  recent  and  existing  primitive  societies  does 
remain  inference  when  it  is  applied  to  Western  prehistoric  societies.  It  has 
been  of  very  great  use  in  eliminating,  or  at  least  cutting  down  the  general 
acceptance  of,  certain  misleading  simplifications  about  human  nature,  and 
hence,  of  course,  about  morals,  that  we  have  inherited,  above  all,  from 
eighteenth-century  notions  about  an  original  "state  of  nature"  in  which  men 
were,  to  put  it  mildly,  believed  to  have  been  very  different  from  Westerners 
in  1780.  Indeed,  what  can  be,  not  immodestly,  called  the  cumulative  knowl- 
edge about  human  beings  that  the  social  scientists  have  gradually  built  up 
does  enable  the  historian  of  Western  morals  to  start  off  with  some  broad 
generalizations  about  the  possible  ways  in  which  what  went  on  during  the 
hundreds  of  centuries  of  prehistory  help  explain  what  went  on  in  our  brief 
Western  history — or,  at  the  very  least,  to  sketch  out  some  limits  of  Western 
conduct  not  always  recognized  as  limits  by  those  who  set  up  Western  ethical 

We  are,  of  course,  on  the  unsettled  ground  of  analogy.  There  are,  for 
example,  good  grounds,  the  biologists  believe,  for  the  statement  that  when  we 
fall  we  "instinctively"  put  up  our  arms  because  the  "instinct"  to  do  this  was 
part  of  the  physiological  equipment  of  our  tree-borne  ancestors.  But  this 
action,  which  helped  these  very  distant  ancestors  to  grab  the  nearest  branch 
when  they  fell  by  accident,  is  of  no  help  to  us,  and  is  likely  to  give  us  a 
broken  arm  we  should  not  have  had  were  we  able  to  fall  with  the  instincts  of 
the  cat,  or  like  the  trained  actor  in  a  death  scene,  loosening  up  generally.2 

Now  a  parallel  case  might  be  found  in  an  activity  more  obviously  involved 

2  The  instance  is  from  Fred  Hoyle,  Man  and  Materialism,  New  York,  Harper,  1956, 
pp.  25-26. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

in  a  history  of  morals  than  a  physical  fall.  We  are  all  subject  to  the  kind  of 
emotion  I  have  in  my  introductory  chapter  called  moral  indignation;  indeed, 
the  news  photograph  of  the  good  Negro  girl  and  the  bad  white  girl  there  cited 
will  do  as  our  concrete  example.  A  large  number  of  Americans  were  certainly 
made  angry  by  the  sight  of  that  photograph.  In  the  process  that  makes  us 
"feel"  this  anger,  the  body  produces  a  flow  from  the  adrenal  glands,  a  flow 
that  in  the  primitive  past  of  Homo  sapiens  moved  him  to  anger  or  fear,  and 
hence  to  fighting  or  running  away,  either  action  in  its  proper  place  a  response 
useful  to  his  survival.  But  the  action  of  the  adrenal  glands  we  get  from  reading 
the  daily  newspaper  can  hardly  end  in  any  such  direct  action;  the  letter  to  the 
editor  is  no  substitute  for  hitting  someone  hard — and  quickly.  It  is  possible 
that  this  misdirected  adrenal  flow  may  have  something  to  do  with  all  sorts 
of  human  ills  now  fashionably  called  psychosomatic.3 

At  the  very  least,  it  does  seem  likely  that  in  civilization  men  face  in  the 
relation  between  their  thought-sentiment  and  their  "rational"  or  "scientific" 
thought  a  kind  of  problem  that  did  not  disturb  prehistoric  men.  I  should 
guess  that  all  the  very  real  troubles  of  conscience — yes,  conscience — sug- 
gested to  so  many  of  us  by  terms  like  "prejudice,"  "wishful  thinking,"  "a 
priori,"  "unscientific"  are  recent  indeed  in  the  long  evolution  of  mankind. 
We  cannot  often  make  so  simple  a  confession  of  the  strength  of  our  made-up 
minds  as  the  following,  from  an  Englishman  concerned  with  the  horrid 
dangers  of  Americanization: 

I  have  long  viewed  with  alarm  the  influx  of  American  television  programmes.  It 
is  one  of  our  biggest  social  problems.  /  have  never  seen  the  American  programmes 
but  I  am  convinced,  after  considerable  study,  that  they  are  a  bad  influence.4 

Another  broad  generalization  is  even  more  hazardous  than  these  last, 
since  it  involves  that  dangerous  and  attractive  intellectual  device,  the  concept 
of  a  social  or  cultural  "organism."  But  it  is  worth  our  brief  attention.  From 
the  admirable  studies  of  children  made  by  Jean  Piaget  and  his  assistants,  it  is 
clear  that  very  young  children  go  through  a  stage,  roughly  from  four  years 
or  so  to  nine,  but  varying  with  individuals,  in  which  they  regard  the  rules  of 
their  games — the  moral  code  of  an  important  part  of  their  lives — as  absolutes, 
as  part  of  a  reality  wholly  external  to  them.  Moreover,  since  they  are  unable 

3  For  an  interesting  sketch  of  this  problem  in  nontechnical  but  scientifically  respectable 
language,  see  Joseph  Pick,  "The  Evolution  of  Homeostases,"  Proceedings  of  the  Ameri- 
can Philosophical  Society,  XCVHI,  1954,  p.  298. 

4  Quoted  in  Terrence  O'Flaherty's  column  in  the  San  Francisco  Chronicle,  September 
27,  1957.  Italics  mine.  The  man  who  made  this  statement  would  probably  explain  that 
his  "study,"  though  not  direct  observation,  still  gave  him  the  "facts"  that  made  up  his 
mind.  We  lack  the  courage  of  our  prejudices. 


Origins:  The  Ancient  Near  East 

to  distinguish  among  rules,  laws,  and  "natural"  events,  their  concepts  of 
agency,  responsibility,  and  guilt  are  quite  different  from  those  of  adults.5  Now 
it  is  risky  to  appeal  to  the  familiar  biological  notion  of  recapitulation — the 
human  fetus,  for  instance,  briefly  has  something  like  gills,  retracing,  so  to 
speak,  almost  instantaneously  the  stage  of  our  evolution  when  we  were  fishes. 
The  morals  of  Piaget's  child  subjects  do  bear  striking  similarity  to  the  morals 
of  Western  societies  we  think  of  as  "young,"  say,  the  Greeks  of  the  Homeric 
epics  or  the  Jews  of  the  Pentateuch,  not  so  much  in  their  actual  content,  of 
course,  as  in  the  moral  attitude  toward  rules  as  absolutes.  It  is  less  risky  to 
say  simply  that,  quite  apart  from  any  parallelism  between  biological  and 
cultural  development,  it  may  well  be  that  our  Western  culture  has  preserved 
over  the  last  few  dozen  centuries  strong  traces  of  an  ethical  absolutism  char- 
acteristic of  earlier  Western  societies. 

Even  more  apposite,  perhaps,  is  the  recent  work  of  the  biologists  and 
naturalists  who  call  their  field  "ethology."  The  work  of  Konrad  Lorenz, 
N.  Tinbergen,  and  many  others  suggests  that  the  higher  animals  develop  cer- 
tain elaborate  forms  of  behavior  they  are  not  born  with,  in  the  old  sense  we 
used  to  think  of  as  "instinct,"  but  which  they  do  not  have  to  "learn"  either. 
We  moralists  are  perhaps  too  much  influenced  by  the  assumption  that  since 
human  morals  can  be  and  are  so  thoroughly  verbalized,  they  must  be  wholly 
learned,  wholly  the  product  of  much  symbolic  thinking  embodied  and  even 
codified  in  "culture."  It  goes  against  the  grain  to  thinfr  of  "releasers"  and 
"imprinters"  that  bring  the  human  conscience  into  play — or  work;  but  this 
is  a  line  of  investigation  that  many  believe  will  prove  fruitful  for  the  social 
sciences.  In  the  balance,  surely,  the  Western  turn  in  the  Age  of  Reason  was 
a  turn  to  excessive  intellectualism  and  to  even  more  excessive  meliorism.6 

Finally,  there  remain  the  much-disputed  efforts  to  find  leads — indeed, 
whole  theories — for  sociology  and  anthropology  from  modern  depth  psy- 
chology. Freud's  own  attempts  in  Totem  and  Taboo  and  in  Moses  and  Mono- 
theism, the  application  of  Jung's  concept  of  a  "collective  unconscious"  to 
actual  social  problems,  the  recent  tendency  within  psychoanalysis  itself  to 
study  the  social  and  cultural  environment  of  the  patient — all  this  work  has 
so  far  failed  to  attain  general  acceptance  among  students  of  human  relations. 
It  is  fashionable  now  to  make  fun  of  Freud's  efforts,  as  a  good  Jewish  non- 
religious  Jew,  to  find  the  origins  of  old  Jehovah,  not  in  a  volcano,  but  in  the 

5  J.  Piaget,  The  Moral  Judgment  of  the  Child,  trans,  by  M.  Gabain,  New  York,  Ear- 
court,  Brace,  1932. 

*  The  reader  will  find  an  interesting— and  not  at  all  ponderous — introduction  to  this 
field  in  Konrad  Lorenz,  King  Solomon's  Ring,  New  York,  Crowell,  1952. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

patriarch,  the  old  bull  of  the  herd.  But  the  hope  lingers  on  that  we  shall  find 
in  the  continued  study  of  human  behavior,  and  with  the  full  collaboration  of 
the  students  of  anthropology  and  prehistory,  some  clues  to  the  reasons  why 
men  so  obstinately  and  firmly  continue  to  behave  like  human  beings,  and  not 
like  the  happy,  rational,  natural  MAN  of  the  eighteenth-century  Enlighten- 

At  the  very  least,  we  can  conclude  that  the  work  of  biologist,  anthropol- 
ogist, and  sociologist — though  not  all  of  them  would  be  willing  to  admit  this 
—does  suggest  that  a  great  deal  of  our  conduct  is  "determined"  by  what 
happened  to  our  ancestors,  more  particularly  to  our  human  and  anthropoid 
ancestors  in  the  million  or  so  years  before  written  history  began  a  mere  five 
thousand  years  or  so  ago.  The  biological  aspect  is  clear  indeed:  no  significant 
change  in  historic  times.  Even  for  the  subgroups  the  ethnologist  studies,  the 
degree  of  mixture  of  different  "races"  within  the  West  has  probably  not 
changed  significantly  in  historic  times.  The  last  few  decades  in  particular 
have  certainly  submitted  some  specimens  of  Homo  sapiens  to  material  en- 
vironments wholly  unprecedented.  It  is  sufficient  here  to  mention  the  air- 
plane and  the  possibilities  of  space  flight. 

But  such  matters  must  be  left  to  the  final  chapter,  when  we  face  such  diffi- 
cult questions  as  whether  our  total  human  equipment  is  good  enough  to  stand 
up  against  what  science  and  technology  have  done  for  us  and  to  us.  Here  we 
need  no  more  than  suggest  that,  in  many  ways  which  we  cannot  fully  under- 
stand, our  distant  past  may  well  be  the  most  important  thing  in  our  lives.  We 
were  all  nomads  ten  thousand  years  or  so  ago,  and  our  Celtic  and  Germanic 
ancestors  were  nomads  or  seminomads  much  more  recently  than  that.  Clearly 
men  did  make  the  transition  from  the  life  of  hunting  and  food  gathering  to 
the  grinding  toil  of  fanning,  the  disciplined  sociopolitical  life  of  village  and 
city,  the  simple  staying  put  made  necessary  for  the  masses  by  the  so-called 
"neolithic  revolution."  Perhaps  survivals  of  old  nomad  days  have  had  a  part 
in  the  recurrent  phases  of  cultural  "primitivism"  in  the  West,  the  last  of 
which,  the  eighteenth-century  cult  of  Nature  and  the  Noble  Savage,  is  not  yet 
quite  dead.  Perhaps  the  nomad  of  20,000  B.C.  had  some  part  in  that  very 
modem  miracle,  the  settlement  of  the  American  West. 

One  more  very  large  topic  will  suggest  the  range  and  difficulty  of  these 
problems.  The  human  family  is  an  old  and  universal  institution.  We  find  it  at 
the  beginnings  of  history  in  all  societies,  and  though  the  prehistorian  can  tell 
us  little  about  the  family  in  our  Western  Stone  Ages,  it  is  inconceivable  that 
the  family  did  not  exist.  A  great  deal  of  human  conduct  is  tied  up  with  the 


Origins:  The  Ancient  Near  East 

family — sex,  child  rearing,  economic  activity,  law,  and  much  else.  The  an- 
thropologists, who  have  taught  us  so  much,  have  told  us  that  the  Christian 
monogamous  family  in  its  nineteenth-century  Victorian  form  is  not  the  only 
successful  form  of  the  family,  and  they  have,  perhaps  without  always  intend- 
ing to  do  so,  shaken  the  belief  that  this  nineteenth-century  Western  family  is 
the  best  form  of  the  family,  the  apex  of  moral  evolution.  Now,  in  the  mid- 
twentieth  century,  the  prophets  of  doom  find  the  family  disintegrating — in 
the  United  States,  already  disintegrated.7  The  historian  of  morals,  indeed  the 
historian  tout  court,  can  suggest  that  hundreds  of  centuries  of  the  family — 
granted,  not  quite  in  the  Victorian  tradition — make  it  extremely  unlikely  that 
the  family  will  disappear  in  our  day,  or  even  change  its  ways  greatly.  But  he 
cannot  go  much  further  than  that  He  can  note  that  over  the  ages,  biology 
and  important  phases  of  culture  have  combined  to  put  women  in  a  position 
"inferior"  in  some  sense  to  that  of  men  in  the  West;  he  can  even  go  further, 
and  suggest  that  some  of  the  resistance  men  still  make  to  complete  equality 
between  the  sexes  is  probably  a  survival  from  the  distant  past.  And  so  for 
many  of  our  attitudes  in  matters  of  sex,  incest,  for  example,  or  less  shocking 
forms  of  sexual  abnormality;  they  go  back  to  the  beginnings  of  our  record, 
and  presumably  further,  though  by  no  means  as  constants  in  form  and  in- 

To  take  another  and  less  serious  instance,  many  of  us  feel  special  pleasure 
in  a  fireplace  or  a  campfire.  It  has  been,  indeed,  a  favorite  literary  device  to 
take  this  pleasure  back  through  the  ages  to  our  distant  ancestors  basking  in 
the  warmth  and  security  of  the  safe,  controlled  little  fire  in  the  cave.  Certainly 
simple  utilitarian  explanations  seem  here  inadequate.  Modern  American 
houses  are  overheated  successfully  enough  without  a  fireplace.  Nor  does  the 
motive  of  snobbery,  a  perfectly  good  "rational"  motive,  seem  quite  enough 
by  itself,  for  the  usual  development  of  snobbery  in  these  matters  in  the 
United  States  is  in  the  direction  of  pride  in  the  very  latest  thing  possible.  The 
chimneyless  house,  however,  has  not  taken  hold. 

The  difficulty  in  this  and  our  other  instances  is  to  set  up  a  satisfactory 
explanation  of  just  how  these  attitudes  were  transmitted  over  thousands  of 
years.  Our  high-school  course  in  general  science  set  our  minds  straight  about 
the  genetics  of  peas,  and  even  of  blue  eyes  in  human  beings.  But  it  is  hard 
to  believe  that  there  is  a  gene  which  bears  a  love  of  fireplace  fires,  or  even  a 
horror  of  incest.  Certainly  those  particular  genes  have  not  been  found.  Yet 

7 1  am  exaggerating,  but  not  much.  For  an  example  of  such  a  prophet,  see  P.  A.  Soro- 
kin,  The  American  Sex  Revolution,  Boston,  Porter  Sargent,  1956. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

the  concept  of  cultural  inheritance  remains  vague,  a  vagueness  well  brought 
out  if  you  try  to  use  realistically  a  term  like  "cultural  genetics."  Clues  there 
are,  such  as  Walter  Bagehot's  happy  phrase  "unconscious  imitation."  In  the 
broadest  sense,  it  is  quite  certain  that  the  adult  generation  does  "transmit" 
attitudes  to  the  younger  generation,  that  the  young  reach  adulthood  "condi- 
tioned" to  these  attitudes,  which  they  then  find  difficult  to  change.  But  some 
of  them  do  get  changed — or,  obviously,  there  would  be  no  history. 

As  always,  there  is  a  nagging  metaphysical  problem  at  the  bottom  here: 
permanence  versus  change.  As  usual,  the  twentieth-century  Westerner  has  to 
settle  as  comfortably  as  he  can  on  both  sides.  "Something"  changes,  but 
"something"  is  relatively  permanent.8  We  must  note  the  particular  form  the 
problem  takes  here,  since  one  of  the  great  and  unsolved  questions  of  morals 
in  our  own  mid-twentieth  century  is  how  great  and  how  rapid  changes  in 
men's  conduct — for  example,  in  their  conduct  as  members  of  existing  "sover- 
eign" in-groups  known  as  nation-states — are  possible.  The  problem  has  many 
sides,  but  one  important  side  involves  the  degree  to  which  we  are  all  impris- 
oned in  our  past.  If  the  disposition  to  do  certain  things  has,  so  to  speak,  been 
built  into  us  by  thousands  of  years  of  human  social  life,  the  normal  assump- 
tion would  be  that  we  shall  continue  to  do,  or  try  to  do,  those  things.  In 
mid-eighteenth  century,  as  we  shall  see,  the  enlightened  Westerner  believed 
substantially  that  no  such  historically  determined  disposition,  at  least  no  such 
disposition  toward  what  he  regarded  as  evil,  existed  in  human  beings  as 
individuals  or  in  groups.  In  mid-twentieth  century,  such  a  belief  is  barely 
possible  anywhere  in  the  West. 

If  the  last  two  centuries  of  work  in  the  social  sciences  by  no  means  tell 
us  what  part — if  any — of  our  morals  we  owe  to  our  prehistoric  ancestors,  it 
has  on  the  whole  made  it  quite  clear  that  those  who  make  plans  to  reform 
men  and  their  institutions  ought  not  to  neglect  human  history  and  prehistory, 
since  only  through  such  history  and  prehistory  can  they  learn  what  kind  of 
materials — to  use  a  deliberately  provocative  word — they  are  working  with. 
They  may  well  have  to  learn  that  those  materials  are  really  limited,  let  us 
say,  like  "natural"  fibers;  there  are  no  possible  human  equivalents  of  the 
synthetic  "miracle"  fibers.  Moreover,  these  last  two  centuries  of  work  in  the 
social  sciences — in  the  wider  sense,  also  the  work  of  scholars,  novelists,  phi- 
losophers, of  all  concerned  with  human  conduct — have  made  it  clear  that 

8 1  owe  to  my  friend  Albert  Leon  Guerard  the  very  apposite  tale  of  a  doctor's  oral  in 
which  the  badgered  candidate  was  pushed  into  a  more  and  more  intransigent  position. 
One  of  his  tormentors  commented,  "Well,  Mr.  So-and-So,  you  are  an  absolutist,  aren't 
you!"  This  time  the  candidate  scored:  "I  suppose  I  am,  sir,  relatively." 


Origins:  The  Ancient  Near  East 

such  conduct  has  long  been  exceedingly  varied.  Primitive  men  and  primitive 
societies  studied  in  modern  times  have  turned  out  not  to  be  simple,  not  to 
conform  to  any  one  pattern,  and  its  seems  hardly  likely  that  our  own  Western 
prehistoric  ancestors  were  simple  either.  More  particularly,  the  search  for 
some  original  forms  of  human  personality  and  human  society  which  we  could 
use  in  good  practical  propaganda  and  planning  in  our  own  society  has  proved 
pretty  fruitless.  Over  thousands  of  years  and  over  the  whole  planet,  there  have 
been  communist  societies  and  societies  based  on  private  property,  there  have 
been  really  bewilderingly  complex  variations  in  kinship  and  marriage  sys- 
tems, there  have  been  variously  defined  in-groups  and  out-groups,  there  have 
been  peaceful  societies  and  bellicose  societies,  and  there  have  even  been  soci- 
eties other  than  our  own  postmedieval  Western  society  in  which  individual 
economic  success  was  esteemed.  Herbert  Spencer's  famous  summing  up  of 
the  evolution  of  human  society,  from  "homogeneity  to  heterogeneity,"  from 
the  simple  to  the  complex,  has  to  be  amended  into  that  formula  so  inevitable 
in  the  sciences,  so  repugnant  to  us  all  as  human  beings,  heirs  of  that  confused 
and  confusing  cultural  evolution:  with  respect  to  A,  yes;  with  respect  to  B,  no. 
The  motorcar  is  more  complex  than  the  horse-drawn  wagon.  The  division  of 
labor  in  modern  Western  society  is  more  complex  than  it  was  in  the  Stone 
Age.  But  grammatically,  at  least,  our  modern  Western  languages  are  far 
simpler  than  earlier  ones  and  our  kinship  system  is  simplicity  itself  compared 
with  those  of  many  "primitives."  In  respect  to  the  still-little-understood  work- 
ing of  what  we  call  memory,  it  is  likely  that  the  central  nervous  system  of  our 
primitive  ancestors  was  more  complex  than  ours;  it  had  to  be,  for  a  man's 
mind  was  then  his  whole  reference  library.9 

In  sum,  the  thing  we  human  beings  are  and  have  been,  the  "human  na- 
ture" we  shall  shortly  see  was  first  systematized  as  a  master  concept  by  the 
later  Greeks,  is  not  universally  and  rapidly  malleable;  but  it  is  extraordinarily 

9 1  do  not  wish  to  be  understood  as  suggesting  in  the  above  passage  either  that  our 
own  contemporaries  have  abandoned  all  concepts  of  a  "cultural  evolution"  of  hu- 
manity, or  of  Western  humanity,  or  even  that  among  such  concepts  of  evolution  they 
have  wholly  given  up  the  basic  notion  of  some  savage,  earlier,  and  "lower"  stages  and 
later  civilized  "higher"  stages  of  the  process;  nor  do  I  wish  to  imply  on  the  other  side  of 
the  contrast  that  Herbert  Spencer's  contemporaries  were  all  in  agreement  with  him  in 
these  matters.  Nevertheless,  the  range  of  our  contemporary  theories  about  such  cultural 
evolution  is  great  indeed,  from  the  Marxist  to  the  Toynbean  and  the  Sorokinian;  and 
the  more  moderate  ones,  such  as  those  of  the  anthropologist  A.  L.  Kroeber  and  the 
historian  and  sociologist  of  religion  Christopher  Dawson,  are  far  from  Victorian  uni- 
linear evolutionary  concepts.  And  as  for  the  Victorians  themselves,  though  some  of  them 
did  reject  all  notions  of  evolution,  biological  as  well  as  cultural,  those  who  accepted  such 
notions  were  not  very  far  apart— no  further,  let  us  say,  than  were  Comte,  Buckle, 
and  Spencer  in  their  belief  in  unilinear  "scientific'*  evolution. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

varied  and  complex.  We  must  reject  the  kind  of  metaphor  that  suggests  that 
planners  or  "cultural  engineers"  can  do  with  this  human  stuff  anything  like 
what  the  plant  breeder  does  with  his  plants  or  the  organic  chemist  with  his.10 
But  we  must  also  reject  the  kind  of  metaphor  that  suggests  that  this  human 
stuff  is  really  just  one  thing,  unchangeable — yet  somehow  corruptible.  So 
much,  it  seems  to  me,  the  historian  of  Western  morals  can  risk  concluding 
even  before  he  begins  his  story. 


The  story  can  appropriately  begin  with  the  ancient  Egyptians,  even  though 
we  cannot  accept  Breasted's  claim  that  they  first  knew  what  we  call  "con- 
science." In  particular,  thanks  to  the  remarkable  achievements  of  several 
generations  of  Egyptologists,  we  can  for  these  people  know  a  great  deal  about 
a  part  of  human  life  of  the  utmost  importance  for  the  historian  of  morals — 
their  religious  beliefs  and  practices.  For  earlier  peoples,  such  as  the  Magda- 
lenians  who  made  the  famous  cave  paintings  some  ten  thousand  years  ago, 
we  can  only  guess  at  their  religion.  The  paintings  of  bison,  the  deer,  the 
outlined  human  hands,  often  with  a  finger  missing,  found  on  the  walls  of 
caves  can  hardly  have  been  merely  the  equivalents  of  our  own  contemporary 
decorative  or  representational  arts.  The  pictured  animals  were  probably  put 
there  so  that  the  hunters  could  thereby  somehow  kill  real  animals  in  the  hunt; 
they  probably  were  not  god  animals  or  totem  animals,  though  it  is  not  incon- 
ceivable that  they  may  have  been.  Archaeologists  have  also  found  in  these 
earlier  times  sculptured  female  figurines  with  buttocks  and  breasts  greatly 
exaggerated;  the  inference  is  obvious — they  have  some  relation  to  a  cult  of 
fertility.  As  for  the  mutilated  hands,  they  suggest  a  possible  form  of  ritual 
sacrifice,  perhaps  even  a  substitution  of  a  finger  for  an  earlier  total  sacrifice. 
But  even  with  the  aid  of  comparisons  with  known  primitive  peoples,  inter- 
pretation of  these  archaeological  materials  falls  well  short  of  a  theology  or  a 
sociology  of  religion,  and  tells  us  little  about  ethics. 

For  the  Egyptians,  however,  we  have  a  substantial  part  of  all  these  latter. 
We  must  therefore  pause  for  a  moment  and  examine  the  very  thorny  problem 
of  what  we  mean  by  religion  and  what  religion  has  to  do  with  morals.  The 
problem  is  thorny  for  us  largely  because  a  great  number  of  educated  West- 
erners today  consider  that  they  have  no  religion  but  do  have  morals,  and  that 
the  separation  of  religion  and  morals  is  a  natural,  normal  part  of  Western 

10  We  must  reject  it  even  when  the  metaphor  is  expanded  into  a  book,  as  in  B.  F. 
Skinner's  Walden  Two,  New  York,  Macmillan,  1948. 


Origins:  The  Ancient  Near  East 

life.  Historically  speaking,  this  is  simply  not  so;  religion  and  morals  have 
been  intimately  related,  though  it  makes  little  sense  to  say  that  either  is  the 
"cause"  of  the  other.  It  is  thorny  also  because  for  the  faithful  Jew,  Christian, 
or  Moslem,  what  he  believes  about  God  and  God's  ways  to  man  can  never 
be  wholly  explained  by  a  historical-naturalistic  approach;  even  a  term  like 
"sociology  of  religion"  must,  in  view  of  the  secularist  origins  of  the  study  of 
sociology,  have  for  the  faithful  of  a  revealed  religion  some  unpleasant  over- 
tones. The  Western  monotheisms  make  a  place  for  history,  and  therefore  for 
uncertainty  and  doubt;  but  they  are  obliged  to  put  God  and  God's  work 
ultimately  outside  history  and  beyond  doubt.  Finally,  any  sort  of  religious 
belief,  including  most  emphatically  our  own  secular  religions  like  nationalism, 
Marxism,  the  various  positivist  or  rationalist  beliefs  stemming  mostly  from 
the  eighteenth-century  Enlightenment,  gives  our  judgments  on  all  forms  of 
religion  an  inescapable  emotional  bias. 

Two  closely  related  distinctions  commonly  made  by  students  of  com- 
parative religion  here  make  good  guides  in  an  attempt  to  sort  out  the  com- 
plexities of  primitive  religion  and  morals.  First,  the  distinction  between  a 
contractual  view  held  by  the  believer  as  to  his  relation  with  his  god  or  gods, 
and  a  dependent  worshiper's  view  of  these  relations.  The  former  is  nicely 
summed  up  in  a  Latin  phrase,  do  ut  des — I  give  that  thou  mayest  give.  In  this 
view,  the  believer  complied  with  certain  ritual  requirements  his  faith  told  him 
the  god  insisted  on,  and  in  return  the  god  did  what  the  believer  wanted  him 
to  do;  the  relation  was  not  unlike  that  of  buyer  and  seller,  with  an  implied 
contract.  The  latter  is  summed  up  in  such  a  phrase  as  "prayer  of  contrition." 
The  believer  loves,  fears,  is  in  awe  of  a  Being  whom  he  would  never  dream 
of  approaching  in  the  mood  of  a  man  seeking  to  make  a  contract.  Second, 
there  is  the  related  distinction  between  magic  and  religion,  or  "true"  religion. 
In  magic  the  magician  claims  to  have  a  special  knowledge  of  the  ways  of  the 
gods,  or  of  nature,  by  which  he  can  produce  results;  he  is  a  manipulator.  In 
religion  the  priest  is  the  creature  of  the  gods,  at  most  a  specially  placed  inter- 
mediary between  the  believer  and  the  gods,  but  wholly  dependent  on  the  gods; 
he  is,  like  the  laymen  from  whom  in  many  religions  he  is  hardly  distinguish- 
able, a  worshiper. 

Now  these  distinctions  are  indeed  useful;  even  one  who  believes  himself 
free  of  Western  religious  influences  should  be  willing  to  grant  that  the  attitude 
of  the  prayerful  worshiper  is  morally  superior  to  that  of  the  self-seeking 
practitioner  of  contract  or  magic.  But  in  applying  these  distinctions  to  the 
stuff  of  history  the  gap  between  the  real  and  the  ideal  opens  clearly.  On  this 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

earth,  Christian  life  itself  has  shown  varying  admixtures  of  all  these  attitudes. 
The  familiar  Christian  opposition  of  faith  and  works  is  at  bottom  a  form  of 
the  first  opposition  noted  above.  Pure  faith  is  pure  worship;  pure  works  are 
certainly  close  to  pure  contract.  Again,  historical  Christianity  has  never,  for 
the  mass  of  believers,  meant  the  practice  of  either  pure  faith  or  pure  works. 
But  then,  neither  has  the  practice  of  the  earlier  polytheisms,  one  may  hazard, 
been  purely  do  ut  des.  Above  all,  the  historian  is  confronted  with  the  difficulty 
of  finding  out  the  attitudes  in  matters  of  this  sort  of  the  man  in  the  street,  the 
average,  the  ordinary  man.  The  saint,  the  noble  soul  stands  out  in  history  at 
least  as  firmly  as  the  wicked,  the  villainous.  The  good,  which  in  the  abstract 
or  even  in  the  average  flesh  is  perhaps  less  interesting  than  the  bad,  is  in  its 
exceptional  and  heroic  forms  conspicuous  indeed.  Ikhnaton,  the  pharaoh  who 
tried,  apparently,  to  purge  Egyptian  polytheism  of  its  grosser  elements, 
stands  out  as  a  lofty  idealist.  But  for  the  ordinary  Egyptian  believer,  we  tend 
to  assume  that  the  formal  structure  of  his  religion,  the  named  gods,  the 
sacrifices,  the  whole  ritual  is  an  index  of  his  actual  state  of  mind.  All  these 
factors  tend  overwhelmingly  on  the  side  of  polytheistic  and  magical  beliefs. 

Here,  for  instance,  is  an  Egyptian  mother  protecting  her  child  from  the 
powers  of  darkness. 

Run  out,  thou  who  comest  in  darkness,  who  enterest  by  stealth.  .  .  . 

Comest  thou  to  kiss  this  child?  I  will  not  let  thee  kiss  him. 

Comest  thou  to  soothe  him?  I  will  not  let  thee  soothe  him. 

Comest  thou  to  harm  him?  I  will  not  let  thee  harm  him. 

Comest  thou  to  take  him  away?  I  will  not  let  thee  take  him  away  from  me. 

I  have  made  his  protection  against  thee  out  of  Efet-heib,  it  makes  pain;  out 
of  onions,  which  harm  thee;  out  of  honey  which  is  sweet  to  (living)  men  and 
bitter  to  those  who  are  yonder  (the  dead) ;  out  of  the  evil  (parts)  of  the  Ebdu-ftsh; 
out  of  the  jaw  of  the  meret;  out  of  the  backbone  of  the  perch.11 

The  latter  part  of  this  invocation  is  obviously  magic,  and  not  at  all  lofty. 
Let  us  put  it  beside  another  survival  from  the  long  centuries  of  Egypt. 


Creator  of  the  germ  in  woman, 

Who  makest  seed  into  men, 

Making  alive  the  son  in  the  body  of  his  mother, 

Soothing  him  that  he  may  not  weep, 

Nurse  even  in  the  womb, 

Giver  of  breath  to  sustain  alive  every  one  that  he  maketh! 

11  Quoted  in  Breasted,  Dawn  of  Conscience,  p.  248.  Chapters  13  and  14  of  this 
book  give  many  more  examples  of  magical  formulas. 


Origins:  The  Ancient  Near  East 

When  he  descendeth  from  the  body  (of  his  mother)  on  the 

day  of  his  birth, 

Thou  openest  his  mouth  altogether, 
Thou  suppliest  his  necessities.12 

This  passage  from  a  hymn  to  the  sun-god  Aton,  whom  the  pharaoh  Ikhnaton 
in  the  fourteenth  century  B.C.  tried  to  establish  as  center  of  a  universalist 
monotheistic  religion,  is  quite  as  clearly  high-minded  worship.  Indeed, 
Breasted  quotes  this  and  other  passages  from  the  hymn  in  the  midst  of  parallel 
passages  from  Psalm  104  of  the  Old  Testament,  a  device  perhaps  a  bit  un- 
fairly helped  by  the  lofty  mood  which  anything  approaching  the  style  of  the 
King  James  version  automatically  produces  in  the  reader  of  English,  but  still 
a  fair  parallel,  no  mere  trick.  Magic  and  religion  here  stand  confronted;  they 
are  not  the  same  thing. 

And  yet  something  more  needs  to  be  said.  In  morals  as  hi  taste  the  drastic 
separation  of  higher  and  lower  must  seem  to  the  observer  trying  to  divest 
himself  of  either  morals  or  taste  to  hide  sometimes  a  certain  underlying  set 
of  emotions  felt  both  by  the  experiencer  of  the  high  and  the  experiencer  of 
the  low.  The  Egyptian  mother  was  not  just  muttering  a  spell;  she  was  singing 
a  lullaby.  All  the  first  part  of  her  song  might  well  have  been  sung  by  a  mother 
any  time  since  in  the  West.  There  is  hi  her  song  maternal  love,  maternal 
concern  over  the  helplessness  of  the  infant,  maternal  fear  of  the  unknown. 
These  are  all  emotions  that  in  more  dignified  expressions  we  should  accept 
as  humanly  desirable;  only  yesterday,  at  least,  the  child  psychologist  would 
have  said  that  the  existence  and  strength  of  such  emotions  in  the  mother, 
even  though  they  were  accompanied  by  the  use  of  magic,  was  much  better 
for  the  child  than  their  absence  or  weakness  in  the  mother,  even  though  ac- 
companied in  the  latter  instance  by  the  best  external  help  our  modern  medical 
technology  can  provide  and  by  good  intentions  on  the  part  of  the  mother. 

Moreover,  we  must  note  here  what  seems  to  be  a  fact  of  human  conduct, 
however  objectionable  the  mere  recognition  of  this  fact  may  be  to  many  very 
admirable  partisans  of  the  best  in  human  life.  Words,  gestures,  rites  of  all 
sorts  once  firmly  become  custom  lose  the  referential  immediacy  which  the 
mind  freshly  focused  on  them  finds  in  them.  The  simple  example  is  afforded 
by  the  blasphemies  of  everyday  Christian  life,  which  are  not  blasphemies  at 
all,  but  merely  emphatic  grunts  or  groans  where  there  is  any  real  emotion, 
and  often  no  more  than  obsessively  repeated  sounds.  The  Egyptian  mother 
conceivably  did  not  even  bother  to  make  the  witches'  brew  to  which  her  song 
refers;  and  almost  certainly  her  state  of  mind  was  one  that  the  modern  intel- 

12  Breasted,  Dawn  of  Conscience,  p.  283. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

lectual  apparently  has  difficulty  in  recognizing,  a  mood  of  serene  and  unthink- 
ing acceptance  of  routine,  of  custom,  of  conditioning  in  almost  the  Pavlovian 

Finally,  to  draw  what  we  can  from  these  two  contrasting  passages,  it  must 
be  noted  that  there  is  in  the  hymn  to  Aton  a  touch  of  what  has  to  be  called 
rhetoric.  It  is  a  noble  rhetoric,  but  it  wipes  no  infant's  nose.  Whether  you 
will  go  on  and  infer  that  Ikhnaton  and  the  courtiers  and  priests  who  helped 
him  in  his  attempt  to  purify  Egyptian  religion  were  perhaps  not  as  good 
parents  as  our  mother  with  the  spell  depends  a  bit  on  how  much  of  Rousseau 
there  is  in  you.  The  whole  Aton  movement,  of  which  we  know  nothing  like 
the  details  we  know  for  most  Christian  reform  movements,  may  really  have 
been  basically  political  in  intent,  an  effort  to  centralize  and  unify  a  state  and 
society  that  often  tended  to  break  apart.  It  is  also  possible  to  see  in  Ikhnaton 
himself  an  early  example  of  a  moral  type  we  shall  not  infrequently  meet  in 
these  pages,  the  idealist  of  highest  ethical  standards,  the  intellectual  too  pure 
for  this  harsh  world  of  affairs,  the  martyr,  for  his  reforms  failed  miserably; 
and  yet  also  a  man  by  no  means  without  the  will  to  power  and  the  will  to  be 
admired,  and  capable,  to  gain  his  ends,  of  actions  that  look  to  outsiders 
immoral.  Again,  we  don't  really  know  enough  to  judge  him.  I  suspect  that 
he  was  an  "unprincipled  idealist."13 

The  firmest  mark  the  ancient  Egyptians  have  left  in  the  history  of  culture 
is  their  extraordinary  awareness  of — I  am  tempted  to  jargon,  obsession  with — 
life  after  death.  Some  sort  of  belief  in  the  survival  of  something  of  the  indi- 
vidual after  the  obvious  death  of  the  body  known  to  common  sense  is  very  com- 
mon in  all  sorts  of  cultures;  and  the  least  patronizing  of  anthropologists  has  to 
link  this  belief  with  some  relatively  primitive  notions  about  ghosts  and  the 
like,  and  with  simple  human  desires  not  to  die.  But  the  linkage  of  all  this  with 
the  conduct  of  the  deceased  in  life  on  earth  is  far  from  universal.  With  the 
Egyptians  tne  concept  of  a  divine  judgment  weighing  the  good  and  evil  of 
a  man's  career  and  assigning  reward  or  punishment  after  death  is  clear  as 
early  as  the  third  millennium  B.C.  For  the  upper  classes,  at  least,  there  were 
elaborate  ritual  forms  involving  this  principle  of  moral  judgment,  as  well  as 
the  well-known  efforts  to  insure  at  entombment  for  the  dead  a  physical 
existence  as  much  like  the  earthly  one  as  possible.  The  suppliant  to  the  god 
Osiris,  the  judge  of  the  dead,  is  made  to  put  the  best  possible  case  for  his 
innocence.  The  following  passage  from  the  Book  of  the  Dead  has  a  touch  of 
the  earthly  law  court  which  is  certainly  not  in  the  purest  Christian  tradition 
13  This  useful  and  penetrating  phrase  I  owe  to  the  late  A.  Lawrence  Lowell. 


Origins:  The  Ancient  Near  East 

in  these  matters,  and  has  a  touch  of  pride  offensive  to  both  Jewish  and 
Christian  developed  tradition.  Indeed,  it  must  be  noted  that  the  Jew  at  Yom 
Kippur  does  the  exact  opposite — he  recites  his  sins.  So,  too,  does  the  Chris- 
tian under  confession.  Yet  the  moral  code  has  surely  more  of  the  Western, 
if  not  of  the  universally  human,  than  the  specifically  religious  psychology  of 
the  sacrament  itself  would  show. 

Hail  to  thee,  great  god,  lord  of  Truth.  I  have  come  to  thee,  my  lord,  and  I  am 
led  (hither)  in  order  to  see  thy  beauty.  I  know  thy  name,  I  know  the  names  of  the 
forty-two  gods  who  are  with  thee  in  the  Hall  of  Truth,  who  live  on  evil-doers  and 
devour  their  blood,  on  that  day  of  reckoning  character  before  Wennofer  (Osiris), 
Behold,  I  came  to  thee,  I  bring  to  thee  righteousness  and  I  expel  for  thee  sin.  I 
have  committed  no  sin  against  people.  ...  I  have  not  done  evil  in  the  place  of 
truth.  I  knew  no  wrong.  I  did  no  evil  thing.  ...  I  did  not  do  that  which  the  god 
abominates.  I  did  not  report  evil  of  a  servant  to  his  master.  I  allowed  no  one  to 
hunger  I  caused  no  one  to  weep.  I  did  not  murder.  I  did  not  command  to  murder. 
I  caused  no  man  misery.  I  did  not  diminish  food  in  the  temples.  I  did  not  decrease 
the  offerings  of  the  gods.  I  did  not  take  away  the  food-offerings  of  the  dead.  I  did 
not  commit  adultery.  I  did  not  commit  self-pollution  in  the  pure  precinct  of  my 
city-god.  I  did  not  diminish  the  grain  measure.  I  did  not  diminish  the  span.  I  did 
not  diminish  the  land  measure.  I  did  not  load  the  weight  of  the  balances.  I  did  not 
deflect  the  index  of  the  scales.  I  did  not  take  milk  from  the  mouth  of  the  child. 
I  did  not  drive  away  the  cattle  from  their  pasturage.  I  did  not  snare  the  fowl  of  the 
gods.  I  did  not  catch  the  fish  in  their  pools.  I  did  not  hold  back  the  water  in  its 
time.  I  did  not  dam  the  running  water.14 

For  the  rest,  it  is  possible  to  find  in  the  surviving  fragments  of  Egyptian 
writings  a  surprisingly  representative  range  of  moral  attitudes,  at  least  as  they 
are  reflected  in  the  writings  of  the  moralists.  The  Maxims  of  Ptahhotep  are 
believed  to  be  the  work  of  a  high  official  of  the  twenty-seventh  century  B.C. 
It  takes  no  historical  imagination  at  all  to  confuse  Ptahhotep  with  Polonius, 
especially  as  the  maxims  are  his  advice  to  his  son.  Here  is  a  sample,  I  trust  a 
fair  one: 

If  thou  hast  become  great  after  thou  wert  little,  and  has  gained  possessions  after 
thou  wert  formerly  in  want,  ...  be  not  unmindful  of  how  it  was  with  thee  be- 
fore. Be  not  boastful  of  thy  wealth,  which  has  come  to  thee  as  a  gift  of  the  god. 
Thou  art  not  greater  than  another  like  thee  to  whom  the  same  has  happened. 

Be  not  avaricious  in  a  division,  nor  greedy  (even)  for  thy  (own)  goods.  Be  not 

i*  Breasted,  Dawn  of  Conscience,  pp.  255-256.  The  last  sentences  refer  to  tampering 
with  rules  for  the  use  of  irrigation  water,  as  wrong  today  in  Arizona  as  it  was  thou- 
sands of  years  ago  in  Egypt. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

avaricious  towards  thy  own  kin.  Greater  is  the  appeal  of  the  gentle  than  that  of 
the  strong. 

Follow  thy  desire  (literally  "thy  heart")  as  long  as  thou  livest.  Do  not  more  than 
is  told  thee.  Shorten  not  the  time  of  following  desire.  It  is  an  abomination  to  en- 
croach upon  the  time  thereof.  Take  no  care  daily  beyond  the  maintenance  of  thy 
house.  When  possessions  come,  follow  desire,  for  possessions  are  not  complete 
when  he  (the  owner)  is  harassed. 

If  thou  hearkenest  to  this  which  I  have  said  to  thee,  all  the  fashion  of  thee  will  be 
according  to  the  ancestors.  As  for  the  righteousness  thereof,  it  is  their  worth;  the 
memory  thereof  shall  not  vanish  from  the  mouths  of  men,  because  their  maxims 
are  worthy.15 

Nor  is  there  lacking  in  Egypt  another  moral  attitude,  one  in  much  greater 
credit  among  the  Western  literary,  at  least,  than  the  admirable  commonplaces 
of  Polonius.  To  some  ancient  Egyptians,  as  to  James  Russell  Lowell,  right 
was  ever  on  the  scaifold,  wrong  forever  on  the  throne.  Here  again  one  need 
but  sample: 


To  whom  do  I  speak  today? 

Brothers  are  evil, 

Friends  of  today  are  not  of  love. 

To  whom  do  I  speak  today? 

Hearts  are  thievish, 

Every  man  seizes  his  neighbour's  goods. 

To  whom  do  I  speak  today? 

The  gentle  man  perishes, 

The  bold-faced  goes  everywhere. 

To  whom  do  I  speak  today? 

Robbery  is  practised, 

Every  man  seizes  his  neighbour's  goods. 

To  whom  do  I  speak  today? 

There  are  no  righteous, 

The  land  is  left  to  those  who  do  iniquity. 

Calamities  come  to  pass  today,  tomorrow  afflictions  are  not  past.  All  men  are 
silent  concerning  it,  (although)  the  whole  land  is  in  great  disturbance.  Nobody  is 

15  Breasted,  Dawn  of  Conscience,  pp.  132-137. 


Origins:  The  Ancient  Near  East 

free  from  evil;  all  men  alike  do  it.  Hearts  are  sorrowful.  He  who  gives  commands 
is  as  he  to  whom  commands  are  given;  the  heart  of  both  of  them  is  content.  Men 
awake  to  it  in  the  morning  daily,  (but)  hearts  thrust  it  not  away.  The  fashion  of 
yesterday  therein  is  like  today.  .  .  .  There  is  none  so  wise  that  he  perceives,  and 
none  so  angry  that  he  speaks.  Men  awake  in  the  morning  to  suffer  every  day.  Long 
and  heavy  is  my  malady.  The  poor  man  has  no  strength  to  save  himself  from  him 
that  is  stronger  than  he.  It  is  painful  to  keep  silent  concerning  the  things  heard, 
(but)  it  is  suffering  to  reply  to  the  ignorant  man.  .  .  .16 

The  very  last  passage,  attributed  to  a  priest  of  Heliopolis  during  the  dif- 
ficulties of  a  period  of  crisis  often  called  a  "feudal  age"  (second  millennium 
B.C.)  has  clearly  the  marks  of  a  moralist  in  the  midst  of  a  "time  of  troubles." 
The  priest  of  Heliopolis  is  indeed  worrying,  complaining,  but  his  complaints 
are  somehow  more  dignified  than  those  of  the  author  of  "The  Corruption  of 
Men."  The  priest,  for  one  thing,  appears  to  be  puzzled,  indeed  to  be  thinking; 
the  author  of  "The  Corruption  of  Men"  is  merely  relieving  himself. 

It  is  hardly  possible  to  conclude  much  about  the  moral  ideal  of  the 
Egyptians.  Theirs  is  a  long  history,  which  research  has  shown  to  be  by  no 
means  one  of  frozen  uniformity.  It  is  true  that  there  is  an  early  period  of 
growth  and  consolidation,  a  comparatively  long  period,  broken  into  peaks 
and  valleys  of  high  artistic  and  literary  creativity,  and  then  some  dozen  final 
centuries  of  marking  time.  In  terms  basically  of  ethical  theory,  there  is  a 
definite  development  from  earlier  contractual  relations  with  nature  gods  who 
get  blind  obedience  from  men,  to  moral  relations  with  gods  who  approve 
virtue  in  their  worshipers  and  condemn  vice  hi  them,  and  thence  to  the 
monotheistic  worship  of  Aton  and  the  self-conscious  wisdom  literature  from 
which  we  have  just  quoted.  But  there  is  also  in  the  last  millennium  or  so  a 
clear  lapse  into  magic  and  conformity,  a  loss  of  freshness  and  originality.  Even 
at  the  height  of  the  culture,  however,  we  cannot  from  present  available  sources 
outline  an  Egyptian  equivalent  of  the  Hebrew  prophet,  the  Greek  beautiful- 
and-good,  the  European  knight  of  chivalry. 

It  is,  however,  possible  to  discern  some  phases  of  what  might  be  called 
the  national  character,  phases  not  unimportant  for  the  historian  of  morals. 
For  all  their  reaching  and  overreaching  toward  another  world — their  monu- 
mental art,  their  preoccupation  with  the  mysteries  of  death,  the  touches  of 
not  accepting  the  things  we  Westerners  feel  we  know  and  accept  so  well  from 
our  senses  and  our  science — for  all  this,  there  is  in  the  Egyptian  record  a 
strong  element  of  what  has  to  be  called  "realism,"  the  realism  that  believes 
itself  to  be  holding  a  mirror  to  nature.  In  sculpture,  figures  like  that  of  the 
10  Breasted,  Dawn  of  Conscience,  pp.  172-179. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

scribe  are  familiar;  he  looks  busy,  capable,  and  unworried.17  And  in  ethics  we 
can  always  summon  up  the  figure  of  Ptahhotep  of  the  maxims,  maxims  much 
more  like  those  of  Franklin  than  like  those  of  Vauvenargues  or  La  Roche- 
foucauld. Moreover,  though  they  had  a  few  brief  moments  of  imperialist 
expansion,  though  they  were  a  "great  power"  in  the  earliest  of  Western 
balance-of-power  systems,  the  Egyptians  were  not  very  good  at  war,  not 
by  any  means  a  military  people.  Of  course,  a  great  hot  fertile  valley  does  not 
breed  warriors — this  much  we  must  concede  to  the  "materialistic"  inter- 
pretation of  history.  It  took  invaders  from  harsher  lands,  settled  in  Egypt  but 
still  remembering  their  past,  to  stir  her  to  expansion.  But  again  the  material 
on  this  earth  always  translates  itself  into  the  spiritual,  or  at  least  into  the 
habitual.  The  successful  long-term  militarist  is  no  realist,  no  accepter  of  this 
world  and  these  human  beings,  but  a  heaven  stormer  who  would  shake  us  all 
out  of  our  senses.  A  military  caste  is  so  unnatural,  even  in  the  West,  that  it 
needs,  as  we  shall  see,  special  educating  and  conditioning,  special  moral  ideals, 
to  keep  going.  These  apparently  the  Egyptians  did  not,  over  long  periods, 

They  were  also  gifted  inventors,  skilled  in  the  practical  arts,  characteristics 
the  American  will  list  at  once  as  signs  of  a  realistic  people.  The  Greeks,  as 
we  know  from  Herodotus  and  others,  though  they  were  puzzled  by  the  myste- 
rious sides  of  what  they  thought  was  a  priest-ridden  society,  were  greatly 
impressed  with  the  practical  side  of  Egyptian  life,  with  what  we  should  call 
Egyptian  know-how.  Moreover,  these  skills  were,  in  the  balance,  rather  based 
on  the  empirical  tradition  of  the  craftsman  than  on  anything  close  to  scientific 
speculation.  Astronomy  and  mathematics  owe  more  to  the  Babylonians  than 
to  the  Egyptians;  the  latter  were  good  at  medicine,  an  art  that  goes  naturally 
enough  with  an  acceptance  of  this  world  and  an  unwillingness  to  leave  it  long 
for  any  other.  All  in  all  then,  it  looks  as  though  we  can  find  in  ancient  Egypt  a 
moral  attitude,  a  moral  type,  very  characteristic  of  the  West,  though  it  has 
never  perhaps  quite  set  the  moral  tone  anywhere.  This  is  the  firmly  unheroic, 
indeed  not  even  athletic,  unimaginative,  undespairing,  practical  man  of  com- 
mon sense.  He  is  not  quite  Sancho  Panza  (though  Cervantes  has  come  close  to 
him),  not  quite  Poor  Richard  (though  Franklin  himself  has  touches  of  him) ; 
Moliere's  M.  Jourdain  misses  him  as  badly  as  does  Sinclair  Lewis's  Babbitt. 
In  fact,  the  men  of  letters  are  not  very  good  at  getting  at  and  reporting  a 
creature  so  different  from  themselves;  the  artist  sometimes  does  better.  Take 
another  look  at  that  four-thousand-year-old  Egyptian  scribe. 

17  See  for  example  Plate  66  in  The  Art  of  Ancient  Egypt,  Vienna,  Phaidon  Press, 
1936,  or  Elie  Faure,  Ancient  Art,  New  York,  Garden  City  Publishing  Co.,  1937,  p.  33. 

Origins:  The  Ancient  Near  East 


It  is  hardly  necessary  here  to  pay  great  attention  to  ancient  Mesopotamia. 
To  the  general  historian,  to  the  historian  of  culture,  there  is  much  in  the  record 
of  great  importance.  The  historian  of  Western  morals  can  content  himself 
with  noting  that  the  creation  myths  of  the  Chaldeans  got  incorporated  into 
the  Hebrew  cosmogony — though  he  will,  if  he  is,  above  all,  concerned  with 
his  own  modern  world,  be  even  more  interested  to  note  the  glee  with  which 
nineteenth-century  rationalist  opponents  of  Christianity  lighted  on  evidence 
that  God  had  not  begun  his  work  of  creation  with  the  Jews.  He  will  note  that 
in  the  Code  of  Hammurabi  (about  1800  B.C.)  we  have  a  very  early  and  very 
complete  code  of  laws  which,  for  the  moralist,  shows  the  violence  and  cruelty 
of  punishments  one  would  expect,  but  which  also  shows  clearly  the  legislator's 
attempt  to  recognize  degrees  of  guilt,  a  distinction  that  implies  practical 
recognition  of  men  as  independent  moral  beings,  responsible  for  their  acts — 
just  the  kind  of  recognition  Piaget's  young  children  were  unable  to  make. 

Two  peoples  do  stand  out  in  the  long  and  complex  history  of  the  Meso- 
potamian  state  system  in  the  kind  of  relief  that  interests  the  historian  of 

The  Assyrians,  who  from  the  margin  of  the  great  Mesopotamian  Valley 
came  to  dominate  it  in  a  sudden  rise  in  the  eighth  century  B.C.,  are  known  as 
militarists.  They  seem  to  have  deserved  thek  historical  reputation.  Their  art 
is  highly  masculine,  bullish  and  lionish.  Their  surviving  literature  is  mostly 
imitative  of  the  Babylonian,  for,  though  successful  soldiers  sometimes  come 
to  admire  literature,  they  do  not  often  create  it.  There  are  surviving  inscrip- 
tions left  by  conquering  heroes  in  which  one  of  the  abiding  traits  of  the  mili- 
tary caste  stands  out  in  almost  caricatural  sharpness — their  love  of  boasting 
by  hyperbole,  so  different  from  the  intellectual's  boast  by  litotes. 

But  we  do  not  know  about  these  warriors  what  the  historian  of  morals 
most  needs  to  know:  how  they  were  keyed  by  education  to  the  hard  job  of 
professional  heroism.  It  would  be  nice  to  know  what  the  Assyrian  equivalent 
of  the  Prussian  Junkers'  cadet  school  was  like — there  must  have  been  an 
equivalent — but  we  do  not  have  for  them  even  the  kind  of  information  we 
have  on  the  education  of  the  Greek  warriors  who  took  Troy.  Perhaps  the 
Assyrians  did  not  do  a  good  job  of  military  education;  at  any  rate,  they  held 
their  empire  briefly,  going  down  to  a  revival  among  the  Babylonians  they 
had  conquered — perhaps  evidence  that  the  Babylonians  were  not  quite  as 
corrupt  as  the  Jewish  prophets  made  them  out  to  be.  Here  are  two  specimens 
from  Assyrian  remains: 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

At  that  time  I  received  the  tribute  of  the  land  of  Isala — cattle,  flocks  and  wine.  To 
the  mountain  of  Kashiari  I  crossed,  to  Kinabu,  the  fortified  city  of  Hulai  I  drew 
near.  With  the  masses  of  my  troops  and  by  my  furious  battle  onset  I  stormed,  I 
captured  the  city;  600  of  their  warriors  I  put  to  the  sword;  3,000  captives  I  burned 
with  fire;  I  did  not  leave  a  single  one  among  them  alive  to  serve  as  a  hostage. 
Hulai,  their  governor,  I  captured  alive.  Their  corpses  I  formed  into  pillars;  their 
young  men  and  maidens  I  burned  in  the  fire.  Hulai,  their  governor,  I  flayed,  his 
skin  I  spread  upon  the  wall  of  the  city  of  Damdamusa;  the  city  I  destroyed,  I  dev- 
astated, I  wasted  with  fire.  .  .  .18 

And  now  at  the  command  of  the  great  gods  my  sovereignty,  my  dominion,  and 
my  power,  are  manifesting  themselves;  I  am  regal,  I  am  lordly,  I  am  exalted,  I  am 
mighty,  I  am  honored,  I  am  glorified,  I  am  pre-eminent,  I  am  powerful,  I  am 
valiant,  I  am  lion-brave,  and  I  am  heroic!  (I),  Assur-Nasir-Pal,  the  mighty  king, 
the  king  of  Assyria,  chosen  of  Sin,  favorite  of  Anu,  beloved  of  Adad,  mighty  one 
among  the  gods,  I  am  the  merciless  weapon  that  strikes  down  the  land  of  his 
enemies.  .  .  ,19 

The  Babylonians,  especially  after  their  final  conquest  of  the  Jews  in  the 
sixth  century  B.C.,  do  appear  as  the  first  example  of  the  sensual,  corrupt, 
materialistic  big-city  men.  Clearly,  the  Jewish  priestly  men  of  letters  to  whom 
we  owe  our  impressions  of  the  Whore  of  Babylon  were  not  engaged  in  an 
effort  at  objective  analysis  of  a  culture.  But  we  do  know  that  the  religion  of 
the  Babylonians  was  a  polytheism  that  goes  with  settled  agriculturalists  of 
such  early  areas  of  civilization,  with  a  fertility  cult,  ritual  magic,  and  a  gen- 
eral lack  of  high-mindedness.  The  Babylonians  seem  to  have  been  devoted 
to  business.  We  simply  do  not  have  the  evidence  in  the  scattered  sources  to 
hazard  a  guess  as  to  whether  the  merchant  was  in  any  sense  considered  an 
admirable  person,  a  moral  ideal;  probably  not.  But  it  is  clear  that  the  Baby- 
lonians led  the  kind  of  life  that  stank  in  the  nostrils  of  the  puritanical  Jews 
of  the  Captivity,  that  the  Jews  felt  toward  them  the  righteous  horror  of  the 
monotheist  for  the  polytheist,  the  kind  of  horror  felt  today  by  the  Moslem 
in  India  for  Hindu  beliefs  and  practices,  mixed  with  the  kind  of  indignation 
Martin  Luther  felt  in  the  streets  of  Renaissance  Rome.  The  Babylonians, 
alas,  have  left  no  good  record  of  their  own  feelings  about  the  Jews.  One  may 
guess  that  they  were  not  greatly  afflicted  with  feelings  of  guilt. 

18  D.  D.  Luckenbill,  Ancient  Records  of  Assyria  and  Babylonia,  Chicago,  University  of 
Chicago  Press,  p.  146.  Assur-Nasir-Pal — from  the  pavement  slabs  of  the  entrance  to  the 
temple  of  Urta  at  Calah  (Nimrud) . 

19  Ibid.  Pavement  slabs  as  above,  following  the  invocation  to  Urta. 

Origins:  The  Jews  and  the  Greeks 

THE  JEWS  must  bulk  very  large  in  any  history  of  Western  morals.  The  very 
familiar  notion  that  modern  Western  culture  has  two  roots,  one  in  Judaea 
and  one  in  Greece — its  most  representative  statement  is  perhaps  in  the  works 
of  Matthew  Arnold — is  one  that  must  annoy  the  revisionist  historian,  and  any 
inquirer  distrustful  of  formulas,  anxious  to  qualify,  to  note  variants,  to  avoid 
nice  big  ideas  that  simplify  what  he  knows  to  be  reality.  Nevertheless,  the 
formula  keeps  cropping  up  even  in  the  mind  that  tries  to  reject  it.  We  shall 
have  to  return  to  it.  Here  we  shall  be  concerned  with  the  very  difficult  prob- 
lem of  what  the  morals  of  the  Jews  really  were  in  the  centuries  before  the 
prophets,  before  the  defeats  which  marked  so  deeply  the  minds  of  the  in- 
tellectual leaders  of  the  nation.  But  the  problem  can  be  put  more  sharply: 
other  peoples  in  that  cockpit  of  early  international  conflict,  the  great  valleys 
of  Mesopotamia  and  Egypt  and  the  connecting  fertile  crescent,  were  beaten, 
lost  their  independence,  were  absorbed  by  their  conquerors,  died  and  were 
forgotten,  producing  no  Isaiah,  no  Jesus,  no  Maimonides,  and,  very  definitely, 
nothing  like  a  Theodor  Herzl  or  a  Chaim  Weizmann. 

For  the  early  Jews,  our  surviving  record  is,  in  a  sense,  no  longer  frag- 
mentary. Yet  for  the  historian  the  Old  Testament  is  about  as  full  of  pitfalls 
as  a  source  can  be.  In  the  form  we  have,  it  was  clearly  edited  by  various 
priestly  hands  and  at  various  times,  most  notably  after  the  great  disasters 
of  the  Jewish  "national  state"  in  the  seventh  and  sixth  centuries  B.C.,  but  con- 
tinuing on  down  to  the  second  century  B.C.,  commonly  given  as  the  date  of 
the  Book  of  Esther,  the  latest  of  the  Old  Testament.  It  can  be  analyzed  into 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

constituent  elements;  indeed,  scholars  are  nowadays  in  substantial  agreement 
as  to  its  composition,  subject  to  the  usual  scholarly  debate  over  detail,  an 
agreement  that  should  do  much  to  refute  the  notion  that  there  is  nothing 
cumulative  in  humanistic  scholarly  studies.  There  are  elements  of  a  cosmog- 
ony which  looks  to  be  substantially  a  development  of  old  Babylonian  cos- 
mological  myths,  including  that  much  worked-over  topic  the  Flood.  There  are 
elements  of  what  it  is  not  unfair  to  call  an  epic  of  the  heroic  ages,  the  "Jew- 
ish Iliad,"  with  its  echoes  of  the  wandering  days  of  the  Hebrews  before  they 
settled  in  Canaan,  and  with  a  fine  central  theme,  the  story  of  Moses  and  the 
deliverance  from  Egypt.  There  are  elements  of  a  running  historical  account 
(the  Books  of  Joshua,  Judges,  Samuel,  and  Kings)  clearly  not  the  work  of 
any  "lay"  historian  like  Herodotus,  indeed,  in  a  sense  even  more  obviously 
"clerical"  and  anonymous,  than  the  work  of  medieval  monkish  chroniclers, 
which  is  perhaps  the  best  Western  parallel  familiar  to  most  of  us.  There  are 
elements  of  what  we  are  accustomed  to  call,  simply,  "literature" — the  poetry 
of  the  Psalms,  the  aphoristic  wisdom  of  the  Book  of  Proverbs,  stories  like 
those  of  Ruth  and  Job,  didactic,  philosophical,  poetic,  patriotic,  but,  still, 
stories.  There  are  the  books  rather  tamely  called  the  "prophetic  books," 
which — if  you  can  forgive  the  kind  of  generalization  that  laughs  at  distribu- 
tion curves — are  the  heart,  the  essence,  of  what  the  Jew  has  meant  to  West- 
ern history.  And,  most  important  for  us  in  this  chapter,  there  are,  especially 
in  the  first  five  books,  known  as  the  Pentateuch  (Genesis,  Exodus,  Leviticus, 
Numbers,  Deuteronomy),  a  record  of  theological  growth  toward  monothe- 
ism, an  elaborate  set  of  liturgical  and  other  priestly  rules,  which  make  up  the 
Law,  and  important  ethical  writings  of  which  the  heart  is  the  Ten  Com- 

The  major  difficulty  for  us  is  to  discern  the  earlier  Hebrews  through  the 
later  editing.  No  one  seriously  maintains  that  the  editors  faked,  doctored,  or 
invented;  bad  as  was  the  world  for  these  Jews  of  the  centuries  of  disaster,  it 
was  not  quite  an  Orwellian  world.  But  there  were  no  complicated  techniques 
of  historical  criticism  known  to  them;  these  editors  could  not  be  what  we 
hopefully  call  "historically  minded."  They  wrote  with  a  present  much  in 
mind.  That  present  they  reflected  back  as,  for  example,  high  ethical  mono- 
theism into  an  age  when  the  recently  nomadic  Jews  could  hardly  have  con- 
ceived of  a  single  God,  not  even  their  jealous  tribal  god  Jehovah.1 

1  The  Hebrew  form  is,  of  course,  Yahweh,  or,  more  pedantically  transliterated,  YHWH. 
But  I  cannot  quite  give  up  a  form  sacred  not  only  to  Christians,  but,  as  Ethan  Allen's 
famous  use  of  it  at  Ticonderoga  shows,  to  anti-Christians. 


Origins:  The  Jews  and  the  Greeks 

Yet  it  is  quite  possible  that  the  general  impression  left  by  the  last  two  or 
5e  centuries  of  Western  scholarly  work  on  the  early  Jews  exaggerates  the 

between  the  Jews  of  Moses'  day  and  those  of  the  last  few  centuries  B.C. 
the  English-speaking  world  in  particular,  anti-Christian  debunkers,  who 
e  been  numerous  and  vocal,  have  enjoyed  showing  just  how  different  the 
gion  of  the  Old  Testament  really  was  from  what  it  appeared  to  be  as  seen 
n  the  Baptist  Sunday  schools  of  Birmingham,  England,  and  Birmingham, 
bama.  Jehovah  appeared  in  the  pages  of  these  debunkers  as  a  horrid  tribal 
mt-god,  the  Jews  as  primitives  somehow  nonetheless  already  endowed 
i  many  of  the  traits  modern  anti-Semitism  finds  in  them.  They  were  al- 
ly unnaturally  clannish,  unable  to  get  on  with  their  neighbors,  addicted  at 
e  to  a  particularly  libidinous  sex  life  in  polygamy  and  to  a  kill-joy  puritan- 
,  cruel  and  treacherous  in  war  (the  story  of  Judith,  for  instance),  double- 
ssers  (Moses  in  Egypt,  the  tale  of  Joseph  and  his  brothers),  perversely 
mious,  as  witness  the  complexity  of  their  Law;  in  sum,  rather  worse  than 
st  early  peoples  in  their  conduct,  whited  sepulchers,  in  fact,  to  quote  a 
:h  later  Jewish  writer.2 

Even  when  the  animus  of  such  accounts  is  allowed  for,  even  when  one 
5  simply  that  the  historical  evidence  makes  it  seem  that  the  Hebrews  were 

of  the  nomadic  tribes  of  Semitic  origin  in  the  arid  or  semiarid  regions 
and  the  Nile-Mesopotamian  "cradle  of  civilization,"  who  like  so  many 
r  so  many  centuries  penetrated  these  areas  and  were  absorbed  by  the 
pies  and  cultures  they  found  there,  the  basic  question  still  remains:  Why 
the  Jews  and  their  history  part  of  our  lives  today,  while  the  many  known 

the  many  more  unknown  tribes  that  came  out  of  the  desert  or  the  moun- 
s  to  the  valleys  and  the  fertile  crescent  are  at  best  part  of  specialized  his- 
zal  scholarship? 

A  good  answer,  that  God  chose  the  Jews,  is  one  impossible  for  me,  and 
jly  for  many  of  my  readers,  not  all  by  any  means  necessarily  in  these  days 

e  above  is,  I  admit,  synthetic,  but  I  hope  not  a  caricature.  Almost  all  writers  hostile 
•thodox  Christianity  since  the  Enlightenment  have  seemed  to  enjoy  insisting  on  the 
es  of  early  Jewish  life  most  inconsistent  with  the  spirit  of  the  Beatitudes.  The  Nie- 
lean  H.  L.  Mencken  will  do  as  a  sample.  See  his  lively  but  too  damned  sensible 
tise  on  the  Gods,  New  York,  Knopf,  1930,  and  Treatise  on  Right  and  Wrong,  New 
:,  Knopf,  1934,  both  passim  or  as  the  indexes  under  "Jews"  and  "Yahweh"  indicate, 
following  passage  is  typical:  "The  Old  Testament,  as  everyone  who  has  looked  into 
aware,  drips  with  blood;  there  is  indeed  no  more  bloody  chronicle  in  all  the  litera- 
of  the  world.  Half  of  the  hemorrhage  is  supplied  by  the  goyim  who  angered  Yahweh 
3uting  His  Chosen  People,  and  the  other  half  issues  from  living  creatures  who  went 
i  to  death  that  He  might  be  suitably  nourished  and  kept  in  good  humour."  Treatise 
<e  Gods,  p.  158. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

bad  religious  Christians  or  bad  religious  Jews.  A  sort  of  background  for  an 
answer  can  be  found  in  a  familiar,  if  dangerously  broad,  generalization  well 
known  to  the  contemporary  sociologist  of  religion.  The  early  settled  agricul- 
tural societies  tended  toward  lush  polytheisms  based  on  a  tamed  "nature," 
reflecting  the  preoccupation  of  such  societies  with  the  comforts  of  the  flesh, 
with  the  need  for  vegetable  and  animal  fertility,  with  trade,  property,  and 
the  like;  the  early  nomads,  closer  to  an  untamed  "nature"  and  to  the  ways  of 
preagricultural  hunters  and  food  gatherers,  tended  toward  a  more  austere 
polytheism  of  sky-gods  and  mountain-gods  (among  the  latter,  old  Jehovah, 
not  just  a  mountain,  but  a  volcano!) .  As  the  chief  or  father  god  of  these  pas- 
toral peoples  grew  in  importance,  he  tended  to  become  the  sole  god  of  mono- 
theism, though  originally  the  sole  god  of  the  tribe  or  people  only,  not  by  any 
means  a  universal  God.3 

There  is  something  in  this  distinction  between  the  religions  and  morals 
of  agricultural  peoples  on  one  hand  and  those  of  pastoral  peoples  on  the 
other,  especially  if  it  is  not  held  as  a  simple  dualism.  It  becomes  especially 
misleading,  however,  if  it  is  developed  into  a  Spenglerian  metaphor  of  West- 
ern religion  emerging  from  the  shadowy  desert  "cave"  of  a  Semitic  Near  East. 
Perhaps  Jehovah,  the  Father  of  Jesus,  and  Allah  did  start  their  careers  in  the 
desert  or  semiarid  country,  but  so,  too,  did  many  Semitic  Baals  who  never 
got  beyond  their  own  little  shrines.  The  Phoenicians  and  their  Carthaginian 
heirs,  also  Semitic,  continued,  into  their  greatness,  devotion  to  their  Moloch, 
their  graven  images,  their  by  no  means  higher  religion.  Nor  did  the  Aryan 
and  other  invaders  from  the  north,  who,  if  they  did  not  emerge  from  deserts, 
were  surely  pastoral  nomads  originally,  attain  to  high  ethical  monotheism. 
Their  sky-gods  and  other  thunder  wielders  never  became  more  than  firsts 
among  equals.  The  most  famous  of  them,  Zeus- Jupiter,  became,  as  befits  the 
king  amongst  his  nobles  after  the  nobles  have  acquired  arts  and  letters,  rather 
less  than  that,  to  judge  from  recorded  squabbles  on  Olympus. 

There  is  no  single  broad  explanation  either  of  Jewish  survival  as  a  people 
or  of  the  Jewish  achievement  of  a  religion  that  is  a  base  of  Christianity — the 
two  achievements  being,  indeed,  related.  The  foundations  were  surely  laid 
before  the  Babylonian  Captivity  began  in  586  B.C.,  and  some  of  them  go  back 
to  the  desert,  back  to  Abraham  and  the  other  patriarchs.  What  was  built  up 
in  the  earlier  centuries  and  in  the  successful  establishment  of  Israel  was  a 

3  On  this  contrast  of  the  gods  of  settled  agricultural  and  wandering  pastoral  peoples,  see 
a  good  resume  in  Christopher  Dawson,  The  Age  of  the  Gods,  Boston,  Houghton  Mifflin. 
1920,  Chap.  XL 


Origins:  The  Jews  and  the  Greeks 

society  extraordinarily  knit  together  in  self-consciousness.  The  phrase  the 
bluff  Menckens  have  had  such  an  ironic  time  with — the  Chosen  People — 
deserves  to  be  taken  in  full  sociological  seriousness.  Here  it  is  in  all  its  clarity 
from  the  Pentateuch: 

...  the  Lord  thy  God  hath  chosen  thee  to  be  a  special  people  unto  himself, 
above  all  people  that  are  upon  the  face  of  the  earth.  The  Lord  did  not  set  his  love 
upon  you,  nor  choose  you,  because  ye  were  more  in  number  than  any  people;  for 
ye  were  the  fewest  of  all  people:  but  because  the  Lord  loved  you,  and  because 
he  would  keep  the  oath  which  he  had  sworn  unto  your  fathers,  hath  the  Lord 
brought  you  out  with  a  mighty  hand,  and  redeemed  you  out  of  the  house  of 
bondmen,  from  the  hand  of  Pharaoh  king  of  Egypt.4 

It  will  not  do  to  assume  that  the  feelings  behind  this  passage  were  limited 
to  the  priestly  intellectuals  who  wrote  it.  The  Hebrew  religion  as  it  developed 
spread  these  feelings  to  the  common  people.  Moreover,  the  Jews  were,  in 
spite  of  their  quarrels  among  themselves,  their  frequent  backslidings  into 
idolatry — the  "familiar  spirits,  and  the  wizards,  and  the  teraphim,  and  the 
idols  and  all  the  abominations" — one  of  the  great  religiously  and  morally  dis- 
ciplined peoples  of  history.  Most  of  the  well-known  analysis  that  Polybius 
and,  after  him,  Machiavelli  give  of  the  role  religion  played  in  the  disciplining 
of  the  early  Romans  applies  to  the  Jews.  In  addition,  the  Jews  had,  in  the 
Biblical  account  of  creation,  in  the  great  epic  of  the  exile  and  the  exodus,  in 
all  their  early  national  literature,  an  emotionally  and  intellectually  satisfying 
justification  for  the  discipline  to  which  they  submitted — no,  "submitted"  is 
here  the  natural  and  wrong  word  of  a  culture-bound  twentieth-century  Ameri- 
can; let  us  say  "which  they  embraced."  Finally,  there  is  the  possibility  that 
Moses  was  a  great  man,  not  just  a  myth,  and  that  in  the  very  critical  years 
when  the  Hebrews  were  becoming  the  Jews  of  Israel  they  were  well  served 
by  a  series  of  good  leaders. 

Above  all,  however,  it  will  not  do  to  assume,  as  we  of  this  day  of  national- 
ism and  racism  are  inclined  to,  that  the  Chosen  People  felt  themselves  chosen 
unconditionally,  by  themselves  and  for  themselves,  to  satisfy  individual  pride 
in  the  pooled  pride  of  the  in-group.  The  conscientious  Jew  from  the  time  of 
the  exile  on,  at  least,  and,  we  may  assume,  from  much  earlier,  felt  that  the 
Jews  were  chosen  for  something,  chosen  as  witnesses  for  God's  will  toward 
men,  chosen  to  set  the  example  of  a  moral  life.  The  Jew — and,  here,  the 
pagan-loving,  Greek-loving  critic  who  dislikes  the  Jewish  element  in  our  tra- 
dition as  "repressive"  or  "puritanical"  is  not  without  some  justification  in  fact 

4  Deuteronomy  7:6-8. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

for  his  attitude,  though  he  usually  neglects  this  same  side  of  his  beloved 
Greeks — this  Jew  did  go  through  life  worrying  about  his  righteousness,  did 
submit  himself  to  extraordinary  ritual  tasks  which  carried  specific  moral 
implications,  did,  in  the  matter  particularly  of  sex  relations,  spell  out  for 
himself  a  code  that  fully  took  account  of  the  grave  complexities  and  diffi- 
culties men  and  women  have  with  that  obstinately  "unnatural,"  that  is,  moral, 
phase  of  human  conduct.  The  Jew,  clearly,  did  not  grow  up  in  the  South  Seas, 
nor  in  the  pages  of  an  Enlightened  eighteenth-century  devotee  of  nature's 
simple  plan.  Our  real  feelings  and  our  customary  behavior  in  matters  of  sex 
continue  to  bear  firmly  the  mark  of  Jewish  experience.5 

Thus  endowed  in  the  course  of  the  centuries,  of  which  the  Pentateuch 
and  the  early  historical  books  are  a  record  with  an  unusually  closely  meshed 
cosmogony,  theology,  liturgy,  priesthood,  and  received  historical  epic  culmi- 
nating in  the  concept  of  the  Chosen  People,  with  a  moral  code  and  moral 
habits  in  turn  closely  meshed  with  the  above  and  culminating  in  a  tight  na- 
tional discipline,  with  a  national  culture  hero  like  Moses,  the  Jews  became 
the  people  of  Israel.  But — and  this  is  most  important — they  never  became, 
like  the  Romans,  a  successful  expansionist  people.  Even  at  its  height,  the 
kingdom  of  Solomon  was,  beside  such  great  powers  as  Egypt,  Assyria,  or 
Babylonia,  a  minor  state.  The  Jews  could  keep  the  kind  of  discipline  that  is 
always  lost  in  a  successful  imperialist  expansion.  Their  history  had  prepared 
them  for  their  extraordinary  feat  of  survival.6 

In  the  face  of  this  survival,  the  harshness  of  early  Jewish  culture  is  not  of 

5  On  Jewish  moral  puntanism,  I  suggest  the  reader  not  directly  familiar  with  the  sources 
go  to  them,  if  only  briefly  for  such  a  good  sample  as  Deuteronomy,  chapters  21-28.  If 
in  this  reading  he  finds  only  absurdities,  irrationality,  superstition,  unnatural  restraints, 
if  he  thinks  himself  superior  to  all  this,  then  I  suggest  he  had  better  not  bother  to  go 
on  with  this  book.  He  has  shown  himself  too  enlightened  in  the  narrow  rationalist 
sense  to  profit  from  the  record  of  the  long  centuries  of  the  unenlightened. 

6  An  American  can  perhaps  best  get  some  feeling  for  how  the  Jews,  molded  by  a 
consciousness  of  being  chosen,  by  a  firm  belief  in  theologically  explained  history,  by 
a  discipline  strengthened  by  the  resistance  of  neighboring  peoples,  by  a  moral  code  that 
set  them  off  from  their  neighbors,  and  by  gifted  leadership,  survived  as  a  people  if  he 
will  reflect  on  the  achievement  of  the  Latter-day  Saints.  In  the  midst  of  an  American 
democratic  society  that  presses  and  persuades  to  conformity,  that  "assimilates'*  at  least 
as  rapidly  and  completely  as  any  early  civilized  society  could,  the  Mormons  have 
for  a  century  maintained  themselves  as  a  peculiar  people.  I  am  not  suggesting  that 
the  Mormons  are  not  at  all  like  other  Americans,  but  merely  that  they  have  preserved 
a  corporate  identity  of  their  own.  Nor  do  I  suggest  that  they  will  preserve  even  that 
as  long  as  the  Jews  have  theirs.  But,  for  the  present,  I  submit  that  not  even  the  firmest 
devotee  of  the  explanation  of  history  by  geographical  environment  or  by  any  other 
simple  "materialistic"  factor  can  get  at  the  moral  difference  between  those  two  geo- 
graphical twins  Utah  and  Nevada  or  those  older  ones  Israel  and  Phoenicia. 


Origins:  The  Jews  and  the  Greeks 

great  importance.  A  cultivated,  artistic,  peaceful  people,  a  people  smilingly 
accepting  a  world  in  the  balance  to  be  enjoyed — such,  for  instance,  as  from 
their  artifacts  alone  we  perhaps  mistakenly  picture  those  delightful  Minoans 
— could  not  have  done  what  the  Jews  did  in  Israel.  You  need  at  least  an  island 
for  such  a  delightful  culture,  a  Crete  if  not  a  Bali.  There  is  a  streak  of  austerity 
in  these  early  Jews,  not  an  ascetic  turning  away  from  the  delights  of  the  flesh 
(the  Song  of  Solomon  is  surely  concerned  with  sex  in  a  way  well  short  of 
sublimation)  but,  rather,  a  certain  heaviness  of  spirit.  The  laughter  of  the  gods 
is  not  there,  nor  even  the  smiles  of  men. 

The  great  moral  code  of  the  Jews  is  still  taught  most  Westerners  in  their 
childhood.  Here  are  the  Ten  Commandments: 

1.  Thou  shalt  have  no  other  gods  before  me. 

2.  Thou  shalt  not  make  unto  thee  any  graven  image,  or  any  likeness  of  any 
thing  that  is  in  heaven  above,  or  that  is  in  the  earth  beneath,  or  that  is  in  the 
water  under  the  earth:  thou  shalt  not  bow  down  thyself  unto  them,  nor  serve 
them:  for  I  the  Lord  thy  God  am  a  jealous  God,  visiting  the  iniquity  of  the 
fathers  upon  the  children  unto  the  third  and  fourth  generation  of  them  that 
hate  me;  and  shewing  mercy  unto  thousands  of  them  that  love  me,  and 
keep  my  commandments. 

3.  Thou  shalt  not  take  the  name  of  the  Lord  thy  God  in  vain;  for  the  Lord  will 
not  hold  him  guiltless  that  taketh  his  name  in  vain. 

4.  Remember  the  sabbath  day,  to  keep  it  holy.  Six  days  shalt  thou  labour,  and  do 
all  thy  work:  but  the  seventh  day  is  the  sabbath  of  the  Lord  thy  God:  in  it 
thou  shalt  not  do  any  work,  thou,  nor  thy  son,  nor  thy  daughter,  thy  man- 
servant, nor  thy  maidservant,  nor  thy  cattle,  nor  thy  stranger  that  is  within 
thy  gates:  for  in  six  days  the  Lord  made  heaven  and  earth,  the  sea,  and  all 
that  in  them  is,  and  rested  the  seventh  day:  wherefore  the  Lord  blessed  the 
sabbath  day,  and  hallowed  it. 

5.  Honour  thy  father  and  thy  mother:  that  thy  days  may  be  long  upon  the  land 
which  the  Lord  thy  God  giveth  thee. 

6.  Thou  shalt  not  kill. 

7.  Thou  shalt  not  commit  adultery. 

8.  Thou  shalt  not  steal. 

9.  Thou  shalt  not  bear  false  witness  against  thy  neighbour. 

10.  Thou  shalt  not  covet  thy  neighbour's  house,  thou  shalt  not  covet  thy  neigh- 
bour's wife,  nor  his  manservant,  nor  his  maidservant,  nor  his  ox,  nor  his  ass, 
nor  any  thing  that  is  thy  neighbour's.7 

This  is  not  the  code  of  pastoral  nomads,  and  it  could  not  have  been  de- 

7  Exodus  20:3-17.  I  number  in  the  common  Protestant  tradition.  Roman  Catholics 
and  Lutherans  combine  1  and  2,  and  separate  10  into  two  by  distinguishing  between 
wife  and  goods  as  objects  of  covetousness.  Thus,  allusion  to,  say,  the  "sixth  com- 
mandment" is  in  itself  misleading;  it  may  refer  to  adultery  or  murder. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

livered  to  a  historical  Moses  at  the  time  and  place  described  in  Exodus.  Its 
feeling  for  private  property — such  as  "thy  neighbor's  house" — even  the  Sab- 
batarian provisions  of  the  fourth  commandment  and  its  firm  monotheistic 
theology,  are  the  work  of  a  people  already  settled,  and  could  hardly  have  come 
directly  out  of  the  desert.  In  spite  of  the  harshness  of  the  second  command- 
ment— that  phrase  "visiting  the  iniquity  of  the  fathers  upon  the  children  untc 
the  third  and  fourth  generation  of  them  that  hate  me"  has  long  been  par- 
ticularly offensive  to  modern  Western  liberals  of  all  sorts — the  code  as  2 
whole  is  not  a  cruel,  harsh,  or  "primitive"  one.  Granted  that  it  is  in  form  an 
imposed  and  absolutist  code,  it  has  nonetheless  been  able  to  survive  with 
honor  among  modern  peoples  who  do  not  really  feel  it  as  either,  but  as  some- 
thing springing  from  the  experience  of  the  race.8  The  code  has  quite  simply 
been  part  of  our  lives,  not  something  outside  us,  nor  outside  nature.  It  seems 
likely  that  over  the  long  centuries  some  men  and  women  have  halted  on  the 
brink  of  theft,  or  perjury,  or  even  adultery,  have  "resisted  temptation,"  be- 
cause they  had  been  "brought  up  on"  the  Ten  Commandments — or  so  it  must 
seem  to  all  but  disastrously  naive  deniers  of  the  power  of  the  Word. 

The  Ten  Commandments  of  course  by  no  means  exhaust  the  ethical 
teachings  of  the  Old  Testament.  The  books  of  the  Pentateuch,  variously 
edited  as  they  were,  contain  a  really  extraordinary  variety  of  ethical  precepts 
and  commands.  Leviticus  itself,  the  most  priestly  of  the  books,  has  not  only 
ritual  precept  after  ritual  precept,  on  diet,  cleanliness,  sacrifices,  and  the 
like,  the  Law  as  duly  spelled  out  under  the  authority  of  Moses;  it  has  also 
a  great  many  ferocious  laws  on  matters  sexual,  prescribing  death  penalties 
for  a  great  and  specific  range  of  spelled-out  misconduct  from  adultery  to 
sodomy  and  incest.  It  has  much  on  keeping  the  Sabbath,  and  on  preserving 
the  in-groupness  of  Israel.  But  it  also  has,  among  many  prescriptions  that 
are  essentially  concerned  with  social  and  political  relations — part  of  the 
fields  and  the  gleanings  shall  be  left  "for  the  poor  and  the  stranger,"  for  in- 
stance— a  sentence  that  the  evangelists  were  to  echo  word  for  word:  "Love 
thy  neighbor  as  thyself."9 

*W.  T.  Stace  makes  a  common,  but  also  misleading,  distinction,  to  which  I  shall  re- 
turn, between  the  two  sources  of  European  [Western]  ethical  thinking  which  he  calls 
the  Palestinian  "impositionist" — that  morality  is  imposed  on  man  from  outside  human- 
ness — and  the  Greek  'Immanentist" — that  morality  grows  out  of  humanness.  The 
Destiny  of  Western  Man,  New  York,  Reynal  and  Hitchcock,  1942,  Chap.  I. 
9  Leviticus  19:18.  See  also  Matthew  19:19;  Luke  10:27.  Chapters  19  and  20  of 
Leviticus  are  a  good  cross  section  of  these  priestly  ethics.  There  are  also  some  fine 
''primitive"  prescriptions  in  Exodus  21  following  immediately  after  the  Ten  Com- 


Origins:  The  Jews  and  the  Greeks 

Not  even  from  the  body  of  the  Old  Testament  we  are  in  this  section  con- 
cerned with  (the  books  from  Genesis  to  Isaiah)  is  it  quite  possible  to  draw 
an  embodied  Jewish  ideal  person.  Moses  was,  as  we  have  noted,  a  culture 
hero,  but  it  does  not  seem  as  though  the  Jew  of  those  years  would  quite  dare 
to  think  of  himself  as  being  "like"  Moses  in  the  way  an  American  might  want 
to  be  like  Lincoln.  It  is  not  that  early  peoples  were  incapable  of  conceiving 
what  I  have  called  the  moral  human  ideal;  as  we  shall  see  in  the  very  next 
section  of  this  chapter,  such  an  ideal  emerges  very  clearly  from  the  pages  of 
Homer.  Nor  are  the  elements  lacking  from  which  some  generalizations  can 
be  made;  they  just  do  not  fit  neatly  together.  Job's  final  surrender  to  a  God 
beyond  any  possible  formal  and  logical  theodicy  is  surely  too  complete  to  be 
Western,  or,  even  in  the  ordinary  sense,  Jewish.  The  wisdom  of  Proverbs 
and,  still  more,  that  of  the  Protestant-rejected  Ecclesiasticus  seem  to  err  too 
far  on  the  other  side  from  that  of  the  Book  of  Job,  that  of  irony,  worldly 
wisdom,  intellectual  disgust  with  the  ways  of  man  (and,  perhaps,  of  God?). 
The  Book  of  Psalms  is  probably  the  best  source  for  the  moral  "tone,"  and 
the  moral  "style,"  of  conventional  Jewry  before  the  downfall  of  the  two 
kingdoms.  It  is  grave,  pious,  conventional,  not  heaven-storming,  but  fully 
aware  that  the  Way  and  the  Law  are  not  easy  to  keep.  The  figure  of  walking 
— "uprightly,"  "in  the  way  of  the  Lord,"  "righteously,"  and  the  like— is 
common  in  both  the  Old  and  the  New  Testaments.  It  is  a  good  figure,  sug- 
gesting effort  but  not  strain;  above  all,  carrying  with  it  no  menaces,  no  com- 
mands from  above.  Here  is  the  beginning  of  the  Fifteenth  Psalm: 

Lord,  who  shall  abide  in  thy  tabernacle? 

Who  shall  dwell  in  thy  holy  hill? 

He  that  walketh  uprightly,  and  worketh  righteousness, 

And  speaketh  the  truth  in  his  heart.10 

Yet,  to  point  up  our  difficulties  in  generalizing  about  the  moral  tone  of 
early  Jewish  life,  this  very  same  psalm  turns  at  once  to  the  negatives,  to  the 
denials — unaccompanied,  it  is  true,  by  any  threats  beyond  the  very  common 
Old  Testament  coupling  of  "Lord"  and  "fear,"  but  still  negatives,  still  threats: 

He  that  backbiteth  not  with  his  tongue, 
Nor  doeth  evil  to  his  neighbour, 
Nor  taketh  up  a  reproach  against  his  neighbour. 
In  whose  eyes  a  vile  person  is  contemned; 
But  he  honoureth  them  that  fear  the  Lord. 

10  Psalm  15: 1,  2.  And  see  C.  S.  Lewis,  Reflections  on  the  Psalms,  New  York,  Harcourt 
Brace,  1958. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

He  that  sweareth  to  his  own  hurt,  and  changeth  not. 

He  that  putteth  not  out  his  money  to  usury, 

Nor  taketh  reward  against  the  innocent. 

He  that  doeth  these  things  shall  never  be  moved.11 

There  is  an  easy  test  of  the  tone  of  the  Old  Testament.  Take  any  con- 
cordance to  the  Bible,  and  glance  at  the  entries  under  the  neighboring  words 
"laugh"  and  "law"  and  their  various  grammatical  forms.  "Laugh"  is  snowed 
under  by  "law";  if  you  subtract  from  the  instances  under  "laugh"  those  in 
which  the  authors  of  the  King  James  version  translated  by  "laugh  to  scorn" 
a  single  Hebrew  word  perhaps  better  translated  "mock,"  and  if  you  also 
subtract  the  ironic  use  of  "laugh"  in  the  wisdom  literature,  you  have  very 
little  real  and  joyful  laughter  left.12  Such  a  test  must  not  be  taken  to  mean 
that  the  Jews  spent  their  time  in  lofty  misery,  that  they  never  enjoyed  them- 
selves simply  and  thoughtlessly.  The  Old  Testament  is,  after  all,  a  product  of 
the  literary,  the  priestly  literary,  and  not  a  piece  of  social-psychological  re- 
search into  attitudes  and  mental  health.  Moreover,  it  is  all  we  have.  It  is 
arresting  to  reflect  that  if  all  we  had  for  the  early  Greeks  was  the  Works  and 
Days  of  Hesiod,  we  should  have  to  conclude  that  their  hearts,  too,  were  over- 
whelmed with  the  harshness  of  this  world. 

Yet  even  a  fragment  of  the  accepted  great  literature  of  a  people  is  not 
altogether  misleading  as  to  their  moral  ideals  and  even  as  to  their  conduct.  A 
later  age  that  found  of  all  American  writings  only,  let  us  say,  a  copy  of 
Walden  would  by  no  means  understand  what  we  had  been  like,  not  even  what 
the  old  Yankees  had  been  like;  but  if  the  age  were  still  Western,  still  inter- 
ested in  history,  it  would  not  be  wholly  without  understanding  of  us.  It  would 
in  Thoreau's  work  have  a  good  clue  to  the  exaggerated,  almost,  but  not 
quite,  unlivable  form  the  eternal  coexistence  of  Don  Quixote  and  Sancho 
Panza  takes  with  us  Americans.  The  first  twenty  books  of  the  Old  Testament, 
as  we  have  noted,  are  a  great  deal  more  than  a  fragment;  edited  and  com- 
posed as  they  were,  they  are  less  and  more  than  an  anthology,  a  "course"  in 
Jewish  cultural  history. 

From  them  there  stands  out  clearly  a  feeling  of  need  for  discipline,  for 
the  Law,  an  acceptance  of  the  need  to  struggle  against  men  and  nature,  an 
attitude  the  New  Testament  often  reflects:  "Because  strait  is  the  gate,  and 

11  Psalm  15: 3-5. 

12  Examples:  **The  virgin  the  daughter  of  Zion  hath  despised  thee,  and  laughed  thee  to 
scorn"  (II  Kings  19:21);  "Even  in  laughter  the  heart  is  sorrowful;  And  the  end  of 
that  mirth  is  heaviness"  (Proverbs  14:13). 


Origins:  The  Jews  and  the  Greeks 

narrow  is  the  way.  .  .  ,"13  Some  of  these  feelings  are  those  of  any  early 
people  struggling  for  a  living  in  a  harsh  environment.  Canaan  flowed  with 
milk  and  honey  only  in  comparison  with  the  desert.  The  Jews  did  not  have  it 
easy.  But  however  you  care  to  explain  them,  those  feelings  are  there,  so  put, 
so  preserved,  that  they  have  guided — some  of  the  time,  and  for  some  of  the 
people — lives  in  lands  that  flowed  with  richer  stuff  than  milk  or  honey. 

To  conclude,  there  is  need  to  make  briefly  a  few  cautionary  remarks.  The 
early  Jews  had  the  concept  of  an  afterlife,  and  of  a  heaven  and  a  heU;  but  it 
was  not  a  firm  concept,  let  alone  a  preoccupation,  like  that  of  the  Egyptians — 
and  that  of  the  early  Christians.  The  Jewish  sheol,  or  hell,  often  seems  no 
more  than  that  of  their  Babylonian  neighbors,  a  colorless  limbo,  a  threat,  but 
not  a  vigorous  one.  They  had  a  firm  notion  of  sin,  a  word  that  bulks  large  in 
these  early  books  of  the  Old  Testament.  But  even  a  hasty  reading  confirms 
the  commonplace;  sin  is,  before  the  prophetic  writings,  no  Calvinistic  or 
Freudian  horror  within  a  man,  but  a  simple  transgression  of  a  clear  law,  a 
crime  against  the  ordinances  of  the  City  of  God,  disarmingly  illustrated  in 
the  words  attributed  to  Moses:  "And  I  took  your  sin,  the  calf  which  ye  had 
made,  and  burnt  it  with  fire,  and  stamped  it,  and  ground  it  very  small,  even 
until  it  was  small  as  dust."14  Again,  there  is  not  much  use  trying  to  revise  the 
commonplace:  up  to  the  time  of  the  prophets,  Jehovah  (the  Lord,  God)  is 
indeed  the  sole  god  of  Israel.  There  is  no  solid  evidence  that  the  Jews  be- 
lieved the  gods  of  their  neighbors  to  be  nonexistent,  or  in  any  way  fakes. 
These  gods  quite  literally  did  not  compete  with  Jehovah,  had  nothing  to  do 
with  him,  except  indirectly  as  their  adherents  tried  to  tempt  the  Jews  to  go 
whoring  after  other  gods.  It  seems  to  me  probable  that  these  early  Jews  did 
not  even  think  of  Jehovah  as  "superior"  to  other  peoples'  gods,  for  they 
could  hardly  have  yet  had  the  modern  national  habit — at  its  extreme,  ap- 
parently, today  with  us  and  with  the  Russians — of  thinking  always  in  terms 
of  a  kind  of  big-league  international  competition  in  everything.  Finally,  it 
need  hardly  be  said  that  these  Jews  differ  in  many  important  ways  from 
their  modern  heirs.  They  were  still  farmers  and  herdsmen,  the  merchants 
among  them  much  less  important  than  those  of  the  Babylonians,  for  instance. 
The  history  of  their  kingdoms  is  the  history  of  political  rivalries  and  political 
crimes;  these  Jews  were  no  lotus-eaters.  But  they  do  not  seem,  to  use  a 
current  word  of  social  psychology,  a  very  competitive  society;  or  their 
society  is  by  no  means  the  ritually  combative  society  we  find  among 

is  Matthew  7: 14. 

i*  Deuteronomy  9:21. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

the  Greeks.  Nor  are  these  Jews  notably  hard  workers,  that  is,  they  work  no 
harder  than  their  rough  land  and  primitive  technology  make  necessary;  there 
is  no  Calvinistic  cult  of  work,  and  the  famous  text  "Go  to  the  ant,  thou  slug- 
gard; consider  her  ways,  and  be  wise"  is  rather  out  of  line.15  Finally,  not 
even  in  the  wisdom  literature  is  there  much  trace  of  two  attitudes,  two  per- 
sonalities, we  know  in  modern  Jewry:  the  witty,  cynical,  sentimental  Heine 
and  the  rationalist,  optimistic,  enlightened,  reforming  Eduard  Bernstein. 
True,  these  types  belong  to  a  much  later  and  in  some  ways  more  advanced 
and  more  complicated  society.  But  is  it  not  also  possible  that  the  two  are 
European,  indeed  German,  types,  not  Jews  at  all? 


The  Greeks,  too,  were  a  people  of  the  Book.  Their  Bible  was  Homer.  We  need 
not  here  concern  ourselves  with  the  problems,  interesting  though  they  are, 
which  have  long  occupied  scholars:  Was  there  an  individual  Homer  who 
composed  these  epics,  or  are  they  the  work  of,  to  us,  forever  anonymous  pro- 
fessional bards  over  many  generations?  If  there  was  a  Homer,  did  he  compose 
both  the  Iliad  and  the  Odyssey?  Have  the  two  poems  perhaps  quite  different 
sources?  There  are  many  more  questions.  Scholars  are  agreed  that  both  poems 
were  handed  down  in  oral  form  by  professional  bards  for  several  centuries; 
they  are  reasonably  well  agreed  that  the  written  version  of  the  Iliad  the 
Athenians  used  and  which  has  come  down  to  us  was  brought  to  Athens  in  the 
sixth  century  B.C.  and  may  even  have  been  given  something  like  its  final  shape 
in  Ionia  by  a  "Homer"  of  the  ninth  century.  There  is  great  debate  as  to  how 
much  interpolation,  how  much  editing  the  texts  of  both  poems  underwent 
before  they  were  reasonably  fixed  by  writing,  as  to  how  good  "history"  (in 
contrast  to  "poetry")  they  are,  and  as  to  just  what  society  and  what  culture 
they  came  out  of.  It  would  seem  pretty  clear  that  the  poems  were  not  nearly 
as  much  altered  by  later  and  interested  emendations  as  were  the  books  of  the 
Old  Testament  which  record  the  Jewish  epic;  and  it  is  not  very  risky  to  use 
them,  with  due  caution,  as  documents  "reflecting"  the  moral  life  of  the  Greek 
aristocracy  of  the  Mycenaean  Age  just  before  the  last  or  Dorian  wave  of 
Greek  invasions  or  no  later  than  just  after  those  invasions,  that  is,  of  the 
thirteenth  to  the  eleventh  centuries  B.C.  Achilles  was,  roughly,  a  contempo- 
rary of  Moses. 

15  Proverbs  6:6. 


Origins:  The  Jews  and  the  Greeks 

We  may  find  it  difficult  to  realize  that  the  poems  of  Homer,  and,  more 
especially,  the  Iliad,  which  to  us  are  "literature,"  certainly  better,  greater, 
than  Hiawatha,  but,  like  that  poem,  "literature,"  were  as  much  "religion"  to 
the  Greeks  as  was  the  Bible  to  the  Jews.  But  the  educated  Greek  of  the  great 
ages,  and  right  on  to  the  triumph  of  Christianity  in  the  West,  was  brought  up 
on  Homer.  Plato  himself,  not,  for  reasons  of  principle,  an  admirer  of  poets, 
though  he  was,  of  course,  one  himself,  called  Homer  the  "educator  of 
Greece."16  It  is  true  that  the  poems  were  composed  to  amuse  and  elevate, 
and  certainly  to  hold  the  attention  of,  audiences  of  nobles,  squires,  and  re- 
tainers who  were  presumably  in  no  mood  to  be  preached  at,  let  alone  indoc- 
trinated with  a  theology.  The  priestly  touch  unmistakable  even  in  the  most 
straightforwardly  historical  books  of  the  Old  Testament,  bloody  and  warlike 
though  they  are,  is  not  in  these  poems.  Indeed,  Oswald  Spengler  insists  that 
Homer  was  what  we  should  call  an  antisacerdotalist,  a  fine,  free,  noble 
warrior-spirit  contemptuous  of  the  weak,  womanish,  priestly  intellectual,  in 
fact,  an  anticipation  of  Schopenhauer-Nietzsche-Spengler,  as  masculine  as  a 
Mediterranean  man  could  be.17 

One  may  suspect  that  even  the  bards  of  the  Greek  heroic  age,  however, 
were  modern  enough,  intellectuals  enough,  even  human  enough,  to  wish  to 
improve  the  morals  of  their  audience.  There  is,  incongruous  though  the 
notion  may  seem,  a  good  deal  of  the  didactic  in  Homer;  Homer  knew  well 
how  a  gentleman  ought  to  behave,  and  he  keeps  reminding  his  audience  of 
what  they,  too,  well  knew.  Of  course,  he  was  not  directly  concerned  with 
problems  of  cosmogony,  theology,  or  even  of  that  most  universal  element 
of  all  religions — including  the  Marxist,  which  passionately  justifies  the  ways 
of  the  god  Dialectical  Materialism  to  man — that  is,  a  theodicy.  Yet  it  is 
equally  clear  that  Homer  was  no  more  making  a  purely  literary  use  of  the 

is  On  this  see  H.  I.  Marrou,  A  History  of  Education  in  Antiquity,  trans,  by  G.  Lamb, 
New  York,  Sheed  and  Ward,  1956,  Chap.  I.  This  work  is  a  great  deal  more  than  a 
narrow  and  conventional  interpretation  of  its  title  would  indicate.  It  is,  in  fact,  an 
excellent  history  of  morals  in  antiquity — as  a  history  of  education  should  be.  Herbert 
J.  Muller,  The  Loom  of  History,  New  York,  Harper,  1958,  Chap.  Ill,  is  very  good  on 

i?  Q.  Spengler,  The  Decline  of  the  West,  New  York,  Knopf,  1950,  Vol.  II,  p.  281. 
Alas,  "Homer,"  like  these  Germans,  probably  never  cracked  an  enemy's  skull.  Still, 
the  purely  literary  fighter,  his  mind  berserk,  his  bottom  quietly  chaired,  is,  I  think,  in 
the  West  a  product  of  the  post-Christian  and,  in  our  modern  world,  increasingly  sharp 
conflict  between  the  two  aristocracies  of  the  sword  and  the  pen.  I  do  not  think  Homer 
felt  any  contrast  between  the  world  of  the  gods  and  the  world  of  Achilles  and  his 
peers;  in  fact,  I  do  not  think  he  was  much  like  Spengler. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

Olympian  gods  than  were  the  authors  and  amenders  of  the  Pentateuch  so 
using  Jehovah.  Perhaps  that  last  is  not  put  sharply  enough.  Homer  believed 
in  Zeus  and  Athena  and  the  rest. 

Of  these  Greek  gods  of  Olympus,  it  is  often  said  that,  especially  in 
Homeric  times,  but  to  a  degree  right  down  through  to  the  end  of  Greco- 
Roman  paganism,  they  were  just  like  human  beings,  only  more  powerful, 
that  the  world  of  Olympus  was  simply  a  mirror  image  of  this  world,  even  a 
kind  of  huge  realistic  folk  novel,  in  which  the  gods  conducted  themselves  as 
human  beings  do  in  our  realistic  fiction — that  is  to  say,  rather  worse  than  in 
real  life.  This  is  largely  true,  but  it  must  not  be  interpreted  as  meaning  that 
the  Greek  Olympian  religion  "taught"  its  believers  that  men  could  and  should 
imitate  the  ways  of  the  gods.  The  early  Christian  apologists  were  very  fond  of 
using  the  argument  that  the  pagans  could  hardly  help  lying,  cheating,  whoring, 
and  the  like,  because  the  gods  did  so. 

Nor  is  it  difficult  to  show  why  the  worshippers  of  the  gods  cannot  be  good  and 
just.  For  how  shall  they  abstain  from  shedding  blood  who  worship  bloodthirsty 
deities,  Mars  and  Bellona?  Or  how  shall  they  spare  their  parents  who  worship 
Jupiter,  who  drove  out  his  father?  .  .  .  how  shall  they  uphold  chastity  who  wor- 
ship a  goddess  who  is  naked,  an  adulteress,  and  who  prostitutes  herself  as  it  were 
among  the  gods.  .  .  .  Among  these  things  is  it  possible  for  men  to  be  just,  who, 
although  they  are  naturally  good,  would  be  trained  to  injustice  by  the  very  gods 

It  was  no  doubt  a  good  argument,  and  like  most  such  arguments  more 
consoling  to  the  already  converted  than  actually  useful  as  a  means  of  convert- 
ing unbelievers.  But  it  was  poor  history,  poor  social  psychology.  The  devotees 
of  these  early  Western  polytheistic  faiths  were  by  no  means  as  inclined  to  try 
to  make  their  own  conduct  godlike  as  are  the  believers  of  our  modern  higher 
religions.  The  central  Greek  concept  of  hubris,  to  which  we  shall  return, 
warned  men  firmly  that  the  gods  punished  such  presumption  as  prideful 
indeed.  The  magic  world  of  charms,  incantations,  and  the  like  existed  in 
Greece  as  the  world  of  astrology,  fortunetelling,  and  similar  charlatanries 
exist  with  us,  definitely  below  the  accepted  religion  of  dignified  worship. 

*8  Lactantius,  Divine  Institutes,  in  Works,  trans,  by  W,  Fletcher,  Edinburgh,  1871, 
Vol.  I,  p.  316.  I  admit  that  our  Western  training  makes  us  feel  that  Lactantius  must 
be  substantially  right.  I  would  not  wish  to  overdo  anti-intellectualism  by  denying 
that  there  is  any  connection  between  what  men  believe  about  the  supernatural  and 
their  actual  conduct  But  I  feel  sure  that  Lactantius  is  wrong  about  those  who  are 
"naturally  good";  the  quiet,  faithful  Roman  wife  even  in  the  Late  Empire  was  not 
driven  by  her  ideas  about  the  gods  to  an  imitatio  Veneris. 


Origins:  The  Jews  and  the  Greeks 

True,  lovers  might  appeal  to  Aphrodite — but  not  quite  at  the  purely  magic 
level  of  the  philter.  Lovers  later  were  to  appeal  to  the  Virgin  Mary.19 

In  this  whole  problem,  the  intellectualist  error — that  the  Greek  thought 
cheating  a  moral  good  because  his  god  Hermes  was  a  slippery  customer  (or, 
as  we  shall  note  shortly,  because  his  hero  Odysseus  was  one  also) — is  indeed 
an  error.  But  so,  too,  is  the  anti-intellectualist  error  that  the  kinds  of  gods, 
the  kinds  of  heroes,  a  man  believes  in  has  no  effect  on  bis  morals  or  his 
conduct,  no  relation  with  them.  Unfortunately,  there  is  no  neat  mathematical 
formula  for  striking  a  mean  between  the  intellectualist  and  anti-intellectualist 
position,  which  mean  is  an  accurate  account  of  reality.  There  is  a  relation 
between  what  men  think  the  gods  are  like  and  what  they  think  good  and  evil, 
but  it  is  a  relation  that  varies  with  time,  place,  and  persons.  It  is  no  doubt  a 
variation  within  limits;  the  ideals  of  both  good  and  evil  tend  clearly  to  exceed 
the  limits  of  all  but  the  most  newsworthy  real.  And  always  there  is  that 
pressure — rather,  that  suasion — of  ritual,  habit,  custom,  institutions  whereby 
the  ideal  gets  short-circuited  out  of  the  human  conscious,  where  it  is  a 
stimulant,  and  into  less  noble  parts  of  the  mind,  where  it  is  a  sedative. 

There  is,  indeed,  in  the  relations  between  mortals  and  gods  the  element  of 
contract:  do  ut  des.  But  there  is  more.  Odysseus  is  a  favorite,  a  protege,  of 
Athena,  who  intrigues  for  him  at  court,  struggles  with  Poseidon,  whom 
Odysseus  has  offended,  exults  in  his  successes,  mourns  his  misfortunes. 
Athena  is  the  patron  saint  of  Odysseus;  but  Odysseus  has  to  deserve  her  sup- 
port, not  just  by  ritual  acts,  but  by  being  the  kind  of  man  Athena  approves, 
wise,  resourceful,  by  Christian  ethical  standards  often  unscrupulous,  but 
never  stupidly  unscrupulous,  persistent  in  the  face  of  setbacks,  courageous  in 
combat.  The  reciprocal  relation  of  contract  is  a  moral  one;  men  must  merit 
the  support  of  the  gods,  and  the  gods  must  merit  the  support  of  men. 

They  are  both  aristocracies.  Homer  is  not  really  concerned  with  the 
common  people,  the  demos.  Eumaeus,  the  faithful  swineherd  in  the  Odyssey, 
is  the  only  conspicuous  commoner  in  the  epics;  and  he  is  there  to  point  up, 
it  is  true  in  almost  heroic  degree,  the  standard  virtues  of  the  commoner  in  a 
noble  household.  The  warriors  who  fought  the  Trojan  War  were  officers  and 
gentlemen,  among  themselves,  as  such,  equals,  and  meeting  in  council  to 
make  important  decisions.  Their  leaders  are  the  characters  we  know  by  name, 
Agamemnon,  Menelaus,  Odysseus,  and  the  rest,  older,  wiser  chieftains,  but 

19 1  do  not  write  the  last  sentence  with  intent  to  shock.  I  do  not  equate  Aphrodite 
and  the  Virgin — they  are  very  different  But  part  of  their  provinces  in  human  terms 
do  overlap. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

hardly,  even  in  the  later  medieval  European  sense,  monarchs.  And,  above  all, 
there  is  the  young  Achilles,  the  hero,  in  no  mere  literary  sense,  of  the  Iliad. 

Achilles  is  the  man  all  of  Homer's  listeners  would  like  to  be,  the  man  of 
arete.  The  untranslatable  word  comes  out  in  the  dictionaries  as,  among  other 
things,  "virtue,"  but  "honor,"  even  "proper  pride,"  come  closer.  Achilles 
is  young,  handsome,  the  conspicuous  and  admirable  person,  the  athlete 
of  grace.  Agamemnon,  leader  of  the  expedition  against  Troy,  in  order  to  ap- 
pease an  offended  Apollo,  is  forced  to  take  a  series  of  steps  culminating  in  a 
mortal  offense  to  the  honor  of  Achilles.  Military  ethics  forbids  Achilles  to 
challenge  the  old  leader  to  a  duel,  so  Achilles  simply  withdraws.  In  his  ab- 
sence his  dearest  friend,  Patroclus,  is  persuaded  to  impersonate  him  in  a  ritual 
combat  with  the  Trojan  champion  Hector,  and  is  killed.  Achilles — though 
he  knows  from  a  prophecy  that  he  will  die — now  follows  what  arete  in  such 
a  case  demands  of  the  hero.  He  fights  Hector,  kills  him,  drags  his  body  in 
triumph  from  his  chariot — but  dies  from  a  wound  in  the  heel  by  which  his 
mother  had  held  him  when  she  dipped  him  as  an  infant  in  the  waters  of  the 
Styx,  an  immersion  she  had  intended  to  make  him  proof  against  wounds. 

Now  the  arete  here  brought  to  a  tragic  peak  is  very  far  from  Christian 
virtue,  and  almost  as  far  from  modern  secular,  utilitarian  morality.  It  is  no 
trouble  at  all  to  outline  the  story  of  Achilles  in  terms,  for  most  of  us  at  least, 
of  strong  moral  condemnation.  The  initial  offense  that  outraged  the  hero  was 
Agamemnon's  taking  away  a  concubine  from  Achilles  in  a  kind  of  politico- 
religious  deal  with  Apollo.  The  hero  withdraws,  thus  endangering  the  cause 
of  his  fellows,  his  country,  the  whole  expedition,  out  of  jealous  pique.  He  is 
roused  to  fight  again  by  a  purely  personal  matter,  the  death  in  fair  combat 
of  his  friend  Patroclus,  with  whom  he  may  have  had  pederastic  relations.  He 
takes  a  vainglorious  revenge  on  the  vanquished  Hector.  He  is  moved  through- 
out by  vanity;  he  is  about  as  moral — and  as  human — as  a  fighting  cock. 

The  above  is,  of  course,  unfair.  Homer  is  setting  forth  in  the  framework 
of  the  customs  of  his  time  a  heroic  agon,  a  struggle  in  which  a  man  who  has 
become  what  his  fellows  most  admired  goes  deliberately  to  what  he  knows 
must  be  his  death — to  keep  that  admiration.  More  nobly  put,  Achilles  sacri- 
fices his  life  for  an  ideal,  an  ideal  that  has  never  ceased  to  be  part  of  Western 
moral  life,  though  fortunately  not  often  at  the  frenetic  intensity  of  the  Homeric 
hero's  life.  We  are  back  again  at  arete. 

It  is  the  virtue  of  the  man,  always  measuring  himself  against  others,  who 
is  determined  to  do  better  than  they  the  things  they  all  want  to  do.  In  Homer's 
day  those  things  were  the  things  young,  athletic  fighting  men  of  a  landed 


Origins:  The  Jews  and  the  Greeks 

aristocracy  wanted  to  do  and  be.  But  the  element  of  agon,  the  ritual  struggle, 
could  and  would  be  later  in  Western  history  transferred  to  many  other  kinds 
of  human  activity,  a  fact  that  Americans  hardly  need  to  be  reminded  of.  The 
ideal  of  the  Homeric  hero  can  be  put  pejoratively.  He  is  the  obsessively 
competitive  man,  always  aware  of  his  place  in  an  elaborate  order  of  rank — 
indeed  a  human  peck  order — always  trying  to  move  himself  up  and  push 
someone  down,  the  jealous  egalitarian  who  somehow  manages  to  treat  with 
appropriate  differences  those  above  and  those  below  him,  the  man  who  must 
be  a  success.  Perhaps  only  the  archaic  dignity  of  Homer's  poetry  and  the 
excellence  our  educational  tradition  has  always  found  in  the  Greeks  really 
make  the  difference  between  these  Homeric  competitors  and  the  vulgar  big 
shots  of  our  vulgar  business  world  today.  The  ultimate  prize  in  the  Homeric 
agon,  however,  is  not  mere  success,  not  mere  leading  the  league,  any  more 
than  it  is  in  business  with  us.  Honor,  in  a  curious  way,  is  its  own  reward. 
Achilles  followed  his  father's  most  Homeric  advice,  aw  apurrdcw  icat  virdpoypv 
c/jyicvat  aXXov,  to  a  martyr's  death.20 

Homer  is  an  admirable  source  for  the  ways  of  the  Greek  fighting  aristoc- 
racy of  the  first  few  centuries  after  these  northern  wanderers  settled  down  in 
the  Aegean  world  and  appropriated  for  themselves,  after  the  fashion  of  such 
conquerors,  the  benefits  of  the  civilization  they  found  there.  It  is  already  an 
established  aristocracy,  in  many  ways  reminiscent  of  the  early  feudal  aristoc- 
racy of  Europe,  whose  bards  have  also  left  us  a  great  epic,  the  Chanson  de 
Roland.  The  arete  of  the  Homeric  hero  will  reappear,  altered  indeed,  in  the 
perfect  gentle  knight  of  chivalry.  But  Homer  tells  us  very  little  about  the  rest 
of  the  Greeks,  who  clearly  were  not  even  in  this  stage,  before  the  city-state,  or 
polis,  quite  simply  divided  into  warriors  and  serfs.  For  a  period  of  a  few  cen- 
turies later,  however,  still  well  before  the  great  age  of  Athens  in  the  fifth 
century,  we  do  have  in  the  works  of  Hesiod,  and  in  those  attributed  to  him, 
information  about  aspects  of  Greek  life  not  developed  at  length  in  the 
Homeric  poems,  the  more  practical,  day-to-day  wisdom  of  the  didactic  poet, 
and  some  reflection  of  the  ways  of  the  Greek  farmer.  Hesiod  himself  was  no 
nobleman,  but  also  no  serf  or  slave.  He  came  of  what  we  might  call  yeoman 
farming  stock  in  Boeotia,  a  region  that  later  Greek  literary  tradition  was  to 
label  slow-witted,  boorish.  He  probably  wrote  the  Works  and  Days,  a  series 
of  didactic  poems  dealing  with  the  life  of  the  small  farmer,  though  most 

20  'To  be  always  among  the  bravest,  and  hold  my  head  above  others."  Iliad,  VI,  208, 
trans,  by  R.  Lattimore,  Chicago,  University  of  Chicago  Press,  1951;  I  should  like 
to  translate  unpoetically:  "Always  to  be  best  in  masculine  excellences  and  come  out 
on  top  of  the  others." 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

critics  now  think  he  did  not  write  the  Theogony  the  later  Greeks  attributed 
to  him.  "Hesiod,"  at  any  rate,  formed  with  "Homer"  the  staple  of  Greek 
education  right  down  to  the  end  of  pagan  days*  Hesiod  clearly  supplied  the 
common  touch  lacking  in  Homer. 

The  Theogony  is  the  first  surviving  attempt  to  systematize  what  the 
Greeks  had  come  to  believe  about  their  gods;  it  is  a  kind  of  canon  of  their 
Olympian  religion.  There  is  in  this  straightforward  account  none  of  the 
prettiness,  the  literary  savoring,  the  playing  with  a  mythology  which  is  found 
in  so  much  later  Greek  and  Roman  writing,  and  which  is  at  its  worst  perhaps 
in  the  Metamorphoses  of  Ovid.  Hesiod  surely  believed  in  the  Olympian  gods, 
and  not  self-consciously.  The  line  between  the  life  of  the  gods  and  that  of  men 
was  clear,  but  it  was  not  for  Hesiod  and  surely  not  for  most  Greeks  of  his 
time  a  line  between  what  we  should  call  the  supernatural  and  the  natural. 
Within  a  century  or  so  in  Ionia  we  may  believe  that  the  first  "philosophers" 
on  our  record  were  to  begin  to  make  this  distinction,  and  to  push  the  bound- 
aries of  the  natural  toward  the  point  where  the  existence  of  any  supernatural 
is  denied;  Thales,  the  earliest  name  in  the  long  history  of  Western  philosophy, 
is  said  to  have  predicted  an  eclipse  in  585  B.C.  This,  it  may  be  noted,  is  one 
year  after  the  fall  of  Jerusalem  and  the  beginning  of  the  Babylonian  captivity 
of  the  Jewish  elite. 

These  early  Greeks  certainly  did  not  expect  a  dramatic  supernatural 
interference  by  an  Olympian  in  the  routine  of  their  daily  lives;  but  it  seems 
unlikely  that  they  commonly  felt  the  distinction  between  the  everyday  pre- 
vailing of  the  kind  of  regularities  the  scientist  discovers  and  the  rare,  direct, 
miraculous  intervention  of  the  deity  in  the  affairs  of  men.  Whatever  else  it 
was,  the  Olympian  faith  was  an  immanent  one.  Perhaps  an  ordinary  West- 
erner today  can  best  understand  the  distinction  as  the  Greek  felt  it  if  he  will 
try  to  think  of  the  distinction  between  the  rulers  and  the  ruled  in  the  old 
monarchic  sense,  where  the  ruled  have  no  direct  voice  in  choosing  their  rulers, 
but  do  know  the  difference  between  good  times  and  bad,  good  rulers  and 
bad,  and  feel,  however  obscurely,  that  some  actions  of  theirs  may  somehow 
get  home  to  their  rulers  and  influence  them.  The  Greek  was  even  capable  of 
cursing  a  god  who  failed  to  respond  satisfactorily  to  what  the  petitioner  felt 
was  a  ritually  correct  demand;  and  this  must  not  be  thought  of  as  blasphemy. 

Yet  one  must  not  assume  that  these  Greeks  were  unduly  familiar  with 
their  gods.  They  would  not  at  this  early  date — and,  save  for  a  minority  of 
rationalist  intellectuals,  would  not  at  any  time — have  understood  the  common 
phrase  in  our  history  textbooks  that  the  ancient  Greek  gods  were  like  men 


Origins:  The  Jews  and  the  Greeks 

except  that  they  were  immortal  and  much  more  powerful.  Both  immortality 
and  power,  for  one  thing,  would  have  had  more  absolute  reality  for  them 
than  for  us.  The  Greek  did  have  the  feelings  we  still  can  associate  with  the 
word  "blasphemy,"  if  we  take  the  trouble.  More  particularly,  if  he  did  not 
get  what  he  wanted  from  his  petition — let  us  say  frankly,  prayer,  for  there  are 
many  kinds  of  prayer — he  could  feel  that  either  he  had  failed  to  carry  out  the 
prescribed  ritual  forms  as  they  should  be  carried  out,  or  that  he  had  made  not 
so  much  an  unreasonable  demand  of  the  god  as  a  presumptuous  one,  one 
that  would,  after  all,  offend  the  god's  immortal  majesty.  The  former  was  per- 
haps no  more  than  an  error,  but  the  kind  of  error  in  carrying  out  a  rational 
process  that  can  still  upset  the  scientist  when  he  makes  a  similar  one;  the 
latter  was  a  sin,  which  we  shall  again  meet  in  the  great  days  of  Greece,  the 
sin  of  hubris. 

For  the  rest,  the  works  collected  under  the  name  of  Hesiod,  together  with 
a  few  fragments  of  gnomic  wisdom  from  various  sources,  do  give  us  some 
notion  of  what  Homer  had  to  omit,  the  daily  moral  life  of  ordinary  Greeks. 
They  expect  to  work,  indeed  to  toil.  They  know  they  should  honor  the  gods, 
take  care  of  their  families,  tell  the  truth,  and  keep  their  word.  They  do  not 
look  forward  with  anything  like  Egyptian  awareness  to  reward  or  punishment 
in  a  future  life;  they  would  appear  to  have  some  sense  of  individual  immor- 
tality of  the  soul,  but  not  an  operational  one.  They  do  not  have  any  concept 
of  "moral  progress,"  or  of  historical  progress.  Indeed,  in  this  cosmogony  we 
get  the  first  clear  notion  of  human  collective  life  as  a  decline  from  a  Golden 
Age  to  an  Iron  Age,  with  no  relief  in  sight.  In  short,  the  tone  of  these  works 
and  fragments  is  pessimistic,  a  pessimism  not  really  far  from  the  classic 
phrase  of  the  Book  of  Job:  "But  man  is  born  to  trouble,  as  the  sparks  fly 
upward."21  Again  it  must  be  insisted  that  from  writings  like  these  one  must 
not  conclude  that  Greek  lives  were  spent  in  unrelieved  unhappiness;  but  it 
must  also  be  insisted  that  these  Greeks  were  not  the  happy,  smiling  children 
of  the  Mediterranean  sun,  their  lives  clouded  only  by  a  few  interesting  pas- 
sions, that  they  seemed  to  some  Victorians  to  have  been.  The  Greek  common 
people  could  never  be  sure  enough  of  tomorrow — let  us  be  clear  and  color- 
less and  say,  could  not  have  anything  like  enough  economic  security — to  be 
optimists.  There  is  this  much  truth  in  the  doctrine  of  dialectical  materialism; 
it  took  the  steam  engine  to  produce  Pollyanna. 

211  incline  to  believe  that  not  until  the  eighteenth  century  in  the  West^did  large 
numbers  of  human  beings  come  to  feel  the  antithesis  of  this,  that  "man  is  born  to 
happiness,  as  the  sparks  fly  upward." 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 


There  is  not  much  point  in  dwelling  in  a  history  of  this  sort  on  the  West 
European  equivalents  of  the  archaic  or  heroic  early  periods  we  have  been 
dealing  with  in  this  chapter;  or,  rather,  consideration  of  the  Germanic  and 
Celtic,  perhaps  also  the  Slavonic,  myths  and  heroes  should  come  only  under 
the  nineteenth-century  heading.  Though  Moses  and  David,  Achilles  and  Odys- 
seus have  never  ceased  to  play  an  important  part  in  the  moral  history  of  the 
West,  Wotan,  Siegfried,  and  the  druids  of  eld  went  underground  several 
thousand  years  ago,  with  the  advent  of  Christianity,  and  stayed  underground 
until  quite  recently;  and  it  is  very  hard  to  trace  them  underground.  In  the 
sense  that  I  discussed  in  the  very  first  section  of  this  chapter,  your  conduct 
and  mine  may  well  be  in  part  "determined"  by  what  went  on  among  our 
Celtic,  Germanic,  or  Slavic  ancestors  long,  long  ago,  but  I  do  not  see  any  way 
in  which  the  historian  can  establish  the  nature  and  importance  of  such  an 
effect,  if  it  exists.  Historians,  men  of  letters,  and  at  least  one  very  distinguished 
composer  of  operas  did  in  the  nineteenth  century  combine  to  inform  the 
Germans,  for  instance,  that  they  were  braver  and  more  profound  than  ordi- 
nary people  because  Siegfried  had  gone  even  Achilles  several  better  in  heroics. 
Some,  indeed,  went  so  far  as  to  prove  that  Achilles  himself  had  in  fact  been 
a  German.  We  cannot  leave  Siegfried,  nor  even  the  druids,  out  of  a  history 
of  Western  morals,  because  they,  through  their  legends,  figure  in  some  of  the 
great  modern  religions  of  nationalism.  But  they  do  not  belong  here,  at  this 

As  a  matter  of  fact,  and  in  spite  of  the  often  successful  efforts  of  scholars 
to  reconstitute  objectively  as  much  as  possible  of  these  cultures,  we  know 
the  moral  and  religious  elements  of  the  culture  of  the  ancient  German  and 
the  Celtic  peoples  through  a  double  refraction,  that  of  medieval  redactions 
like  the  Arthurian  cycle  and  the  song  of  the  Nibelungs  and  that  of  the  modern 
romantic  nationalists  which  begins  with  eighteenth-century  figures  like  James 
McPherson  and  Justus  Moser,  Each  of  these  groups  reflects  more  clearly  the 
concerns  of  its  own  age  than  the  nature  of  the  past  ages  it  was  trying  to  bring 
back  to  mind.  The  peoples  of  Northern  and  Western  Europe  simply  did  not 
record  in  writing  what  they  thought  and  felt  until  after  they  had  come  into 
contact  with  the  Roman  Empire  or  Christianity.  The  Greek  and  Roman 
writers  of  later  times  do  give  us  valuable  bits  of  information  about  the  bar- 
barian tribes  who  were  breaking  into  the  empire,  but  the  most  skeptical 


Origins:  The  Jews  and  the  Greeks 

toward  what  our  modern  social  sciences  have  achieved  will  have  to  admit 
that  our  standards  for  such  information  are  vastly  higher  than  those  even  of 
an  Ammianus  Marcellinus,  who  had  no  ax  to  grind.  The  best  known,  and  in 
many  ways  the  best,  of  Roman  accounts  of  the  Germans  is  the  Germania  of 
Tacitus,  a  man  with  a  very  sharp  ax  indeed  against  his  fellows  of  the  Roman 
ruling  classes  of  the  late  first  century  A.D.  Tacitus  was  certainly  a  stern  mor- 
alist, and  in  this  little  tract  he  is  using  the  "primitive"  and  unspoiled  Germans 
as  a  foil  to  the  civilized  and  very  spoiled  upper-class  Romans  of  the  Flavian 
Age.  But  he  does  bring  out  the  fact  that  the  Germans  were  addicted  to 
drunkenness,  brawling,  outbursts  of  temper,  and  knightly  honor,  as  well  as  to 
preserving  the  chastity  of  their  women  and  to  maintaining  the  simplicity  of 
honest  rural  life. 

It  would  be  useful  if  we  could  be  sure  that  certain  tendencies  toward 
conduct  of  a  specific  sort  in  peoples  of  Northern  and  Western  Europe  today 
could  be  traced  back  to  the  ways  of  their  ancestors  of  the  first  millennium  B.C. 
Take  the  German  tendency  toward  disciplined  obedience  to  orders  from  their 
rulers,  their  feeling  for  what  they  call  Obrigkeit  (not  quite  our  "authority"). 
This  tendency,  which  cannot  be  described  with  perfect  exactness,  would  prob- 
ably be  accepted  as  "real"  by  all  save  the  hopeless  nominalists  who  refuse 
to  admit  that  there  is  anything  at  all  that  can  be  described  as  a  national  trait, 
a  national  character.  Does  this  feeling  for  Obrigkeit  go  back  to  Arminius  and 
beyond,  or  is  it,  rather,  the  product  of  the  last  few  centuries  of  Prussian  and 
Hohenzollern  success?  Even  the  assumption  that  the  older  such  a  tendency  is 
the  more  firmly  embedded  in  a  people's  habits  it  is,  and,  therefore,  the  less 
likely  to  change  or  be  changed,  may  not  be  correct;  but  if  it  is,  we  must  regret 
fhat  we  know  so  little  about  just  such  aspects  of  the  early  history  of  these 
peoples.  Perhaps  the  problem  of  the  source  of  a  trait  almost  the  opposite  of 
this  Germanic  sense  of  Obrigkeit,  the  fiery  unruliness  and  irresponsibility 
attributed  to  the  Celts,  is  no  longer  important,  since  even  in  Ireland  the  fire 
seems  almost  extinct.  Yet  for  the  sake  of  Franco-American  relations  it  would 
be  good  to  know  whether  the  reluctance  of  the  French  to  obey  our  behests 
is  the  fault  of  Vercingetorix,  or  merely  of  Louis  XIV  and  Napoleon.  And  of 
course  it  would  be  good  to  know  whether  the  "Slavic  soul"  really  was  formed 
in  the  Pripet  Marshes,  or  was  invented  by  nineteenth-century  Slavophile 
intellectuals.  But  unfortunately  we  cannot  know  (his,  and  much  else  of  the 
sort  we  should  like  to  know.  We  shall  have  to  get  back  to  (hose  remarkable 
Greeks  of  the  fifth  century  B.C.,  about  whom  we  do  know  a  great  deal. 


Greece:  The  Great  Age 

MODERN  HISTORIANS  are  very  aware  of  the  problem  of  what,  in  space  and 
time,  constitutes  a  valid  "unit"  of  history.  Mr,  Arnold  Toynbee  keeps  telling 
us  that  it  is  impossible,  or  at  least  immoral.,  to  try  to  write  the  history  of  so 
parochial  a  group  as  the  modern  nation-state.  Others  have  so  far  pushed 
back  in  time  what  as  schoolboys  we  knew  as  the  "Renaissance,"  and  dated 
even  in  Italy  as  beginning  with  the  mid-fifteenth  century,  that  Renaissance 
and  Middle  Ages  seem  to  melt  together.  In  all  this  critical  revision,  however, 
the  old-fashioned  concept  of  a  Great  Age  of  Greece,  beginning  in  the  eighth 
century  B.C.,  culminating  in  the  fifth,  and  ending  neatly  with  the  fourth  and 
Alexander  the  Great,  has  stood  up  pretty  well.  The  Greeks  were  no  longer 
in  this  age  recent  invaders  under  tribal  chieftains  and  a  warrior  aristocracy 
of  landholders,  as  they  had  been  in  the  Homeric  Age.  They  had  already 
formed  the  characteristic  Greek  society,  the  polis,  or  city-state.  These  small 
states  were  established  through  the  Aegean,  in  Asia  Minor,  the  Greek  main- 
land and  islands,  and  in  the  colonies  scattered  on  coasts  of  the  Mediterranean 
and  Black  seas  not  held  by  those  other  colonists  the  Phoenicians.  Note  that 
this  city-state  was  not  confined  to  what  Americans  know  as  their  "city  limits," 
nor  even  to  their  city  and  suburbs,  but,  territorially  considered,  was  nearer 
to  an  average  American  county  with  county  seat  and  surrounding  small  towns 
and  farms.  The  Greek  city-state,  even  Athens,  which  was  a  manufacturing 
and  trading  city,  had  its  farming  population.  There  is  no  great  distortion 
involved  if  you  will  think  of  it  as  a  small-scale  equivalent — especially  as  to 


Greece:  The  Great  Age 

the  emotional  allegiances  of  its  members — of  the  modern  Western  nation- 

These  city-states,  big  (relatively  big,  of  course) ,  middle-sized,  and  small, 
formed  a  kind  of  system,  an  "international  society"  within  which  there  were 
wars,  sports  (the  original  Olympic  games  and  the  like),  diplomatic  relations, 
trading,  travel,  immigration  in  varying  degrees  of  freedom,  and,  again  in 
varying  degrees  of  freedom,  interchange  of  ideas.  Their  wars  among  them- 
selves culminated  in  the  supremacy  of  a  marginally  Greek  tribal  state  on  the 
north,  Macedonia,  and  the  spread  of  Greek  armies  and  culture  eastward 
under  Alexander.  After  about  300  B.C.,  though  Athens,  Sparta,  and  the  other 
major  city-states  took  a  while  to  realize  it,  the  classic  city-state  gave  way  to  a 
differently  organized  Mediterranean  world,  the  world  of  "Greco-Roman"  cul- 
ture we  shall  study  in  the  next  chapter.  That  world  owed  a  great  deal — did  a 
great  deal  as  it  did,  thought  and  felt  as  it  did — because  of  the  world  of  the 
Greek  city-state  we  are  about  to  study.  So  in  their  turn  did  the  Greeks  of  the 
Great  Age  owe  much  to  their  ancestors  of  the  Homeric  Age.  But  as  periods, 
ages,  cultures,  and  suchlike  devices  that  the  historian  must  use  to  cut  his 
cloth  go,  these  are  all  three — Homeric,  Greek,  Greco-Roman — justifiable, 
perhaps  even  "real,"  and  genetically  related. 

If  historians  are  fairly  well  agreed  that  there  was  a  Great  Age  of  Greece, 
they  are,  as  might  be  expected  in  mid-twentieth  century,  by  no  means  agreed 
on  what  the  age  was  really  like.  Indeed,  the  history  of  the  reputation  of  the 
Greeks  is  itself  a  fascinating  one.  Over  the  last  2,500  years  it  is  safe  to  say 
that,  to  those  in  charge  of  Western  formal  education  and  to  almost  all  mem- 
bers of  the  Western  intellectual  classes,  these  Greeks  seemed  to  have  set  the 
highest  standards  men  have  ever  set  in  manners,  taste,  and  morals,  in  art, 
letters,  and  philosophy.  There  has  been  over  the  centuries  a  remarkably  stable 
set  of  evaluative  notions — let  us  carefully  not  say  "myth,"  "legend,"  or  even 
"pattern" — about  the  Greeks  of  the  Great  Age,  which,  since  I  cannot  here 
dwell  on  it  at  book  length,  I  shall  rashly  try  to  summarize  in  a  sentence.  The 
Greeks,  more  especially  the  Athenians  of  the  Age  of  Pericles,  who  represent 
in  the  tradition  the  topmost  peak,  enjoyed  and  admired  physical  health  and 
"classic"  beauty,  as  embodied  in  their  statues;  were  temperate  and  sensible 
individuals  for  whom  these  enjoyments  never  became  obsessions;  had  a  highly 

i  The  pattern  is  not,  of  course,  perfect.  Some  parts  of  Greece  itself,  notably  the 
northwestern  sections  north  of  the  Gulf  of  Corinth,  were  even  in  the  fifth  century 
organized  tribally  on  an  earlier  pattern.  Where  Greek  colonies  were  planted  in  lands 
inhabited  by  alien  peoples,  there  were  always  special  problems  of  relations  between 
the  urban  Greeks  and  the  surrounding  "natives,"  who  probably  were  mostly  fanners- 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

developed  sense  of  duty  to  the  state  but  also  a  determined  sense  of  individual 
rights  and  freedom;  admired  and  practiced  the  use  of  what  men  still  call 
"reason,"  but  were  not  narrow  rationalists,  since  they  had  a  lofty,  even  tragic, 
awareness  of  man's  middle  state  between  beast  and  god;  had  a  firm  sense  of 
right  and  wrong,  but  no  nagging,  puritanical  worries  about  sin;  had,  in  fact, 
the  best  of  this  world  and  the  next,  with  no  hell,  no  torments  of  the  damned; 
had  psyches  singularly  unlike  the  psyches  charted  by  Sigmund  Freud,  good 
Greek  psyches  in  which  the  unconscious,  if  it  were  there  at  all,  was  as 
serenely  temperate  as  the  conscious.  The  Pericles  of  the  famous  funeral  ora- 
tion was  in  this  tradition  a  realist: 

Our  form  of  government  does  not  enter  into  rivalry  with  the  institutions  of  others. 
We  do  not  copy  our  neighbours,  but  are  an  example  to  them.  It  is  true  that  we  are 
called  a  democracy,  for  the  administration  is  in  the  hands  of  the  many  and  not  of 
the  few.  But  while  the  law  secures  equal  justice  to  all  alike  in  their  private  disputes, 
the  claim  of  excellence  is  also  recognised;  and  when  a  citizen  is  in  any  way  distin- 
guished, he  is  preferred  to  the  public  service,  not  as  a  matter  of  privilege,  but  as 
the  reward  of  merit.  .  .  .  For  we  are  lovers  of  the  beautiful,  yet  simple  in  our 
tastes,  and  we  cultivate  the  mind  without  loss  of  manliness.  Wealth  we  employ, 
not  for  talk  and  ostentation,  but  when  there  is  a  real  use  for  it.  To  avow  poverty 
with  us  is  no  disgrace;  the  true  disgrace  is  in  doing  nothing  to  avoid  it.2 

Perhaps  Walter  Savage  Landor  was  a  realist,  too: 

Tell  me  not  what  too  well  I  know 
About  the  bard  of  Sirmio  .  .  . 

Yes,  in  Thalia's  son 

Such  stains  there  are  ...  as  when  a  Grace 
Sprinkles  another's  laughing  face 

With  nectar,  and  runs  on.3 

This  view  of  the  happy  Greeks  of  the  Great  Age  and  their  cultivated 
Roman  imitators  has  twice  been  severely  attacked.  First,  to  the  Fathers  of 
the  Christian  church  the  Greeks  were  pagan  idolaters,  and  what  the  world 
most  admired  in  them  was  to  the  Christian  simply  sinful.  We  shall  see  in  a 
later  chapter  how  far  early  Christianity  did  in  fact  set  up  ideals  the  polar 
opposite  of  the  beautiful-and-good.  At  any  rate,  with  the  reception  of  Aris- 
totle in  the  medieval  West  through  the  Arabs,  some  part,  at  least,  of  the 
culture  of  the  Greeks  returned  to  high  honor.  With  the  Renaissance  in  Italy 

2  Thucydides,  The  Peloponnesian  War,  trans,  by  B.  Jowett,  Oxford,  Clarendon  Press, 
1881,  Book  H,  §§37-40,  Vol.  I,  pp.  117-119. 

3  "On  Catullus,"  in  Poetical  Works,  ed.  by  Stephen  Wheeler,  Oxford,  Clarendon  Press, 
1937,  Vol.  H,  p.  413. 


Greece:  The  Great  Age 

the  whole  Greek  model  was  raised  to  the  highest  point  it  has  ever  attained  as 
a  model.  Only  with  the  French  "Quarrel  of  the  Ancients  and  the  Moderns" 
and  the  British  "Battle  of  the  Books"  in  Western  Europe -at  the  end  of  the 
seventeenth  century  did  a  group  of  intellectuals,  in  spirit  on  the  whole  on  the 
defensive,  dare  suggest  that  "classic"  cultural  achievements  might  be  equaled 
or  even  in  some  fields  surpassed  by  contemporaries.  The  modernists  did  not 
really  turn  to  the  attack  until  the  nineteenth  century,  when  the  more  ardent 
devotees  of  science  and  technology,  the  more  confident  heirs  of  the  Enlighten- 
ment, began  to  suggest  that  things  Greek  had  been  rather  petty— the  English- 
man Richard  Cobden  said  they  were  "Lilliputian" — and  that  it  was  really 
shocking  that  young  men  all  over  the  West  should  spend  the  best  years  of 
their  lives  in  formal  education,  learning  the  dead  languages  and  the  dead 
cultures  of  the  Greeks  and  Romans.  Herbert  Spencer  put  it  neatly: 

Men  who  would  blush  if  caught  saying  Iphigenia  instead  of  Iphigenia,  or  would 
resent  as  an  insult  any  imputation  of  ignorance  respecting  the  fabled  labours  of  a 
fabled  demi-god,  show  not  the  slightest  shame  in  confessing  that  they  do  not  know 
where  the  Eustachian  tubes  are,  what  are  the  actions  of  the  spinal  cord,  what  is 
the  normal  rate  of  pulsation,  or  how  the  lungs  are  inflated.4 

What  we  may  call  the  utilitarian  attack  has  not  yet  been  as  successful  as 
was  the  first  wave  of  Christian  attack;  but  then,  Western  higher  education 
has  not,  in  spite  of  the  gloomy  predictions  of  the  humanists,  broken  down  as 
did  Greco-Roman  pagan  education  after  the  fourth  century  A.D.  The  Greeks, 
even  if  only  in  translation,  are  still  in  high  honor  among  us.  They  are — and 
this  is  surely  characteristic  of  our  multanimous  age,  as  yet  very  far  from  mass 
uniformity — very  variously  interpreted.  There  are  the  individual  crotchety 
interpretations.  Samuel  Butler,  the  Victorian  rebel  against  a  Victorian  father, 
wrote  a  book  to  prove  that  the  Odyssey  was  written  by  a  woman.  To 
Nietzsche,  Socrates  was  almost  as  guilty  as  St.  Paul  in  bringing  about  the 
perversion  of  the  Greek  warrior  ideal.  More  seriously,  modern  anthropo- 
logical studies  have  focused  interest  on  sides  of  Greek  life  in  the  Great  Age, 
such  as  the  cults  of  Demeter  and  of  Dionysus,  in  which  the  initiates  behaved 
more  like  Holy  Rollers  than  like  sober  devotees  of  sweetness  and  light.  Social 
and  economic  historians  have  called  attention  to  the  always  precarious  mate- 
rial basis  of  Greek  culture,  political  historians  to  the  disastrous  struggles 
among  the  city-states  by  which  they  destroyed  the  very  independence  each 

4  Herbert  Spencer,  Education:  Intellectual,  Moral,  and  Physical,  New  York,  Appleton, 
1890,  p.  43. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

one  cherished  so  greatly.5  The  late  Gilbert  Murray,  one  of  the  most  distin- 
guished of  classical  scholars,  even  suggested  a  major  heresy  in  interpretation: 
the  Greeks  of  the  Great  Age  were  perhaps  not  even  classicists  in  the  sense  of 
being  poised,  gentlemanly,  reasonable  followers  of  the  Golden  Mean,  but 
were  at  bottom  romanticists,  rebels,  undisciplined  yearners  and  mystics  who 
very  much  needed  to  praise,  and  even  to  set  up  ethical  and  artistic  standards 
of  self-restraint,  just  because  they  were  such  wild  men  at  heart.  Traces  of 
these  romanticists  still  remain,  as  in  much  of  the  work  of  Euripides,  but, 
Murray  suggested,  generations  of  schoolteachers  and  conventional  moralists 
have  probably  worked  to  mold  the  heritage  of  the  Great  Age  in  accordance 
with  their  schoolmasterish  "classic"  tastes,  a  task  made  possible  by  the  scarcity 
of  manuscripts  in  days  before  printing. 

The  classical  view  of  the  classic  Greeks,  however,  still  persists.  One  of  the 
most  esteemed  of  American  commentators  on  the  Greeks,  Miss  Edith  Hamil- 
ton, whose  The  Greek  Way  has  had  wide  distribution  in  paperback  form,  still 
sees  them  as  the  Renaissance  saw  them,  as  quite  simply  the  best  yet,  as 
Apollos  incarnate — and  in  something  like  the  Christian  sense  of  an  incarna- 
tion. So  strong  still  is  the  acceptance  of  the  Athenians  of  the  fifth  century  and 
of  all  Greeks  of  the  time  as  incarnations  of  the  humanist's  virtues,  that  the 
historian  is  strongly  tempted  into  revision,  if  not  into  actual  debunking.  It  is 
certainly  a  temptation  I  shall  rather  note  here  than  wholly  resist.6 


The  ideal  of  the  beautiful-and-good,  the  /caAoK<rya0ta,  as  it  stands  out  from  the 
very  considerable  body  of  art,  literature,  and  philosophy  that  has  survived  is 
attractive,  one  must  say,  to  most  Westerners  not  predisposed  by  other  devo- 
tions— or  perhaps  by  some  inner  resistance  to  the  human  lot — to  find  it  re- 
pelling. The  Athenian  gentleman  who  strove  to  attain  this  ideal  was  a  member 
of  an  aristocracy  new  in  the  West.  With  undue  but  useful  simplification,  we 
may  say  that  throughout  Western  history — and,  one  suspects,  Western  pre- 
history, at  least  from  the  Neolithic  times — two  groups  of  gifted,  specially 
trained,  and  privileged  human  beings  have  stood  out  from  the  masses.  We 

5  On  this  whole  topic,  nothing  more  is  necessary  for  the  general  reader  than  the  ad- 
mirable The  Greeks  and  the  Irrational  by  E.  R.  Dodds,  Berkeley,  University  of  Cali- 
fornia Press,  1951,  now  available  in  a  paperback  edition,  Boston,  Beacon,  1957. 
sin  strictness,  I  suppose  one  should  be  careful  not  to  use  "Athenian"  and  "Greek" 
interchangeably;  but  it  is  difficult  to  avoid  some  such  usage.  At  any  rate,  the  great 
tradition  does  take  Athens  as  typical,  Sparta  as  atypical.  This  usage  is  not  without 


Greece:  The  Great  Age 

may  call  these,  with  Spengler,  the  warriors  and  the  priests,  and  symbolize 
them  by  heart  and  head,  or  sword  and  pen.  The  neat  dualism  of  course  breaks 
down  in  concrete  application:  individuals  display  various  admixtures  of  both, 
and  additions  of  something  that  is  neither,  and  this  is  true  whether  we  classify 
them  in  terms  of  the  roles  they  play  or  of  their  temperaments,  their  person- 
alities. Above  all,  for  our  present  purpose,  ruling  or  upper  classes  themselves 
are  often  mixed,  a  class  of  warrior-priests,  a  monarchy  headed  by  a  priest- 
king.  Yet  often,  if  only  roughly,  the  division  holds,  and  the  relation  between 
the  warrior  class  and  the  priestly  class  and  the  prestige  of  each  in  the  eyes  of 
the  other  and  of  the  common  people  are  extremely  useful  facts  for  the  his- 
torian of  ideas  and  of  morals. 

Now  the  point  about  the  Athenian  aristocratic  ideal  is  this:  the  beautiful- 
and-good  man  is  both  a  warrior  and  a  priest — or,  if  the  last  word  throws  you 
off  a  bit,  let  me  use  a  current,  shop-worn,  but  not,  I  hope,  too  misleading 
word,  an  "intellectual."  It  is,  however,  in  many  ways  a  most  unsatisfactory 
word,  for  it  can  start  a  powerful  flow  from  the  adrenal  glands.  Americans 
often  think  of  "intellectual"  as  meaning  "intelligent,"  and  not  "one  who 
preaches,  teaches,  writes,  acts  on  the  stage,  paints,  designs,  or  who  is  chiefly 
concerned  with  appreciating  the  results  of  such  activities."  Physicians,  who 
are  in  our  United  States  rarely  intellectuals  in  this  sense  (though  they  may 
have  an  intellectual's  hobbies),  are  usually  very  intelligent,  very  well-edu- 
cated, and  aware  of  so  being.  When  they  read  about  intellectuals  in  my  sense 
of  the  word,  they  know  they  are  not  intellectuals,  and  they  think  they  are 
being  excluded  from  the  class  of  the  intelligent.  This  makes  them  angry.7 

At  first  sight  it  may  well  seem  that  these  two,  warrior  and  intellectual,  are 
in  happy  and  useful  balance  in  Athens,  each  respecting  and  influencing  the 
other,  the  warrior  refined  but  not  softened  in  the  intellectual,  the  intellectual 
toughened  but  not  stultified  in  the  warrior.  So,  at  least,  the  ideal  has  appeared 
in  the  great  tradition.  And  the  record  of  the  lives  of  these  gentlemen  is  there 
to  show  the  ideal  was  not  wholly  unrealized.  The  warrior  is  no  vain,  boastful 

7  See  S.  M.  Lipset's  'The  Egghead  Looks  at  Himself,"  New  York  Times,  October  17, 
1957,  Section  VI,  and  especially  a  "letter  to  the  editor"  signed  "Robert  Zufall,  M.D." 
a  fortnight  later,  December  1,  Section  VI,  p.  31.  The  letter  is  worth  quoting  as  a 
documentary:  "I  am  moved  to  comment  on  Professor  Lipset's  article.  It  upsets  me 
greatly  to  see  any  group  of  people  call  themselves  The  Intellectuals,'  as  if  they  had 
some  sort  of  monopoly  on  brains.  Webster  defines  'intellectual'  as  'much  above  the 
average  in  intelligence.'  The  Professor  defines  it  as  anyone  who  depends  for  his  liveli- 
hood on  'culture,'  including,  obviously,  a  lot  of  people  who  aren't  even  intelligent  at 
all.  It  strikes  me  that  this  assorted  group  of  singers,  dancers  and  ivory-tower  types 
would  get  a  bit  more  respect  from  the  rest  of  us  if  they  stopped  calling  themselves,  so 
ridiculously,  'the  smart  ones.* " 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

Homeric  fighting  chieftain;  he  is  Xenophon,  recording  not  only  the  successful 
fight  against  great  odds  of  the  Anabasis,  but  the  conversations  of  Socrates  and 
the  admirably  balanced  education,  or  paideia,  of  young  Cyrus.  Or  if,  as  it 
must  be  admitted  the  Achilles  of  Homer  seems  to  have,  the  hero  must  have 
his  interesting  complexities,  these  complexities  are  now,  as  in  the  charming 
Alcibiades,  ambivalences  worthy  of  the  modern  novel.  So,  too,  starting  from 
the  side  tradition  lists  as  primarily  that  of  the  intellectual,  we  know  that 
Socrates  himself  was  an  Athenian  soldier,  that  Aeschylus  was  proud  of  his 
part  in  the  Persian  Wars. 

Was  he  prouder  of  this,  perhaps,  than  of  his  work  as  dramatist?  Com- 
mentators have  often  noted  that  in  the  famous  epitaph  in  the  Palantine  An- 
thology there  is  no  mention  of  the  plays: 

Aeschylus  son  of  Euphorion  the  Athenian  this  monument  hides,  who  died  in 
wheat-bearing  Gela;  but  of  his  approved  valour  the  Marathonian  grove  may  tell, 
and  the  deep-haired  Mede  who  knew  it.8 

It  will  not  do,  however,  to  question  the  genuineness  of  the  admiration  which 
the  Athenian  gentleman  of  the  Great  Age  felt  for  the  work  of  the  mind.  If,  in 
a  culture  that  so  prized  bodily  strength  and  beauty,  a  culture  still  held  so 
much  in  thrall  by  the  spell  of  Homer,  one  feels  that  the  warrior  primes  the 
priest-intellectual,  it  is  still  true  that  the  balance  between  the  two  was  remark- 
ably even.  What  a  closer  examination  does  reveal  is  not  so  much  a  failure  of 
balance — Athenians  could  in  the  Great  Age  hardly  have  understood  the  situ- 
ation aptly  put  by  Bernard  Shaw  for  his  England  as  the  contrast  between 
Horseback  Hall  and  Heartbreak  Hall  or  have  sympathized  with  Kipling's 
very  mixed  feelings  toward  his  "flanneled  oafs  and  muddied  fools" — but, 
rather,  that  the  agonistic  warrior  ideal  we  saw  as  one  of  the  keys  to  the  moral 
ideal  of  the  Homeric  Age  took  almost  complete  possession  of  the  intellectuals 
of  the  Age  of  Pericles. 

We  confront  another  useful  but  dangerous  dualism,  that  between  competi- 
tiveness and  co-operativeness  in  human  nature  and  human  society.9  Certainly 
a  complete  opposition,  the  warrior  and  the  warrior  class  always  for  competi- 
tion, the  priest  and  the  priestly  class  always  for  co-operation,  warriors  always 

8  Select  Epigrams  from  the  Greek  Anthology,  trans,  by  J.  W.  Mackail,  London,  Long- 
mans, 1938,  p.  48. 

9  The  subject  is  of  major  importance  for  the  historian  of  Western  morals,  and  I  shall 
return  to  it.  The  reader  who  wants  a  clear,  forceful — and  exaggerated — statement  of 
the  contrast  should  read  P.  A.  Kropotkin,  Mutual  Aid,  a  Factor  of  Evolution,  New 
York,  McClure,  Phillips,  1902. 


Greece:  The  Great  Age 

pouring  oil,  priests  always  pouring  water,  on  the  fires  of  human  aggressive- 
ness— such  an  opposition  is  very  misleading  indeed.  Even  for  Christianity,  the 
observation  dear  to  hostile  rationalist  critics  is  true  enough:  no  rivalries  more 
bitter  than  those  inspired  by  hatred  theological  Yet  it  is  certainly  true  that 
the  Christian  ideal,  as  we  shall  see  in  Chapter  VI,  if  not  by  any  means  pacifist 
(it  does  have  pacifist  elements),  nonetheless  exalts  brotherly  love,  self-abne- 
gation— co-operation,  in  short — and  severely  condemns  just  those  physically 
agonistic  elements  of  human  life  the  Greeks  of  the  Great  Age  so  admired. 

Their  admiration  was  no  merely  theoretical  one,  but  was  translated  into 
almost  every  sphere  of  the  good,  the  dignified,  the  aristocratic  life.  The  Greeks 
not  only  competed  in  the  Olympic  and  other  athletic  contests,  but  they  com- 
peted in  all  the  arts  and  letters,  and  not  merely  in  the  possibly  ambiguous 
competition  of  the  market  place  and  the  coteries,  from  which  the  wounded 
author  of  our  day  can  always — well,  almost  always — salvage  some  kind  of 
succes  d'estime.  The  Greek  creative  artist  engaged  in  a  firmly  ranked  compe- 
tition from  which  he  emerged  as  clearly  placed — and  as  widely  known — as  a 
major-league  batter  in  the  United  States.  The  dramatists  of  Athens  entered 
their  plays,  which,  if  accepted,  were  staged  and  performed  at  public  expense, 
in  a  competition  and  came  out  ranked  first,  second,  third,  and  also-ran. 
Sculptors,  painters,  architects  all  submitted  to  this  sort  of  athlete's  competi- 
tion. Politicians,  it  need  hardly  be  said,  had  to  win  votes,  though  the  complex 
machinery  of  Athenian  political  institutions  did  not  make  for  such  clear 
numerical  ranking  as  we  Americans  are  used  to  in  our  elections.  Pericles  him- 
self was  a  boss  rather  than  a  direct  people's  choice.  But  the  agonistic  element 
in  Greek  politics  and  war  hardly  needs  emphasis. 

This  everlasting  competition,  as  yet  not  softened  by  humanitarian  and 
egalitarian  sentiments,  was  far  more  ferocious  than  it  appears  to  most  modern 
lovers  of  ancient  Greece  to  have  been.  It  was  at  its  most  intense  in  the  con- 
stant wars  that  culminated  in  the  great  Peloponnesian  War  at  the  end  of  the 
fifth  century.  Actual  fighting  among  human  beings  is  clearly  never  a  gentle 
pursuit,  but  there  is,  nevertheless,  a  remarkable  range  between  the  extremes 
of  stylized  and  not  very  murderous  fighting,  as  in  the  knightly  combats  of  the 
later  Middle  Ages,  and  all-out  fighting  like  that  of  our  own  wars  and  those  of 
the  Greeks  of  the  Great  Age.  It  does  not  become  us,  whose  culture  has  pro- 
duced Auschwitz,  Katyn,  and  Hiroshima,  to  reproach  the  Greeks  of  the  Great 
Age  with  Melos  and  Corcyra.  But  read — and  no  one  concerned  at  all  with 
public  affairs  today  should  fail  to  read — the  pages  of  Thucydides  in  which  he 
describes  what  went  on  at  Melos  and  Corcyra.  Here,  certainly,  that  ambigu- 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

ous  and  perhaps  meaningless  commonplace  that  a  sufficiently  great  difference 
in  degree  can  be  a  difference  in  kind  does  not  hold.  In  numbers  of  victims,  our 
outrages  exceed  those  of  the  Greeks  a  thousand  to  one;  morally  they  are 

Quite  outside  war  and  politics,  one  gets  the  impression  that  competition 
in  Greek  life,  save  perhaps  in  "business,"  was  at  least  as  extensive  as  in  ours, 
and  somewhat  more  extreme.  The  old  Homeric  theme,  which  can  be  trans- 
lated into  good  American  as  "winner  take  all,"  still  prevailed.  One  aimed 
always  for  the  very  top;  only  the  championship  counted.  There  were  no  sec- 
onds or  thirds  in  the  Olympic  games  and  no  team  scores.  It  is,  incidentally, 
enlightening  to  note  that  when  the  games  were  revived  in  a  very  different 
world  in  1896,  the  planners,  quite  aware  of  Greek  history,  refused  to  admit 
team  scores  by  points;  the  press,  and  especially  the  American  press,  pro- 
ceeded to  work  out  "unofficial"  team  scores  which  counted  placing  down 
through  fifth. 

Moreover,  though  there  were  certainly  rules  for  all  these  competitions, 
intellectual  and  athletic,  in  ancient  Greece,  though  as  in  all  aristocracies  the 
concept  of  honor  was  a  very  real  one,  there  are  indications  in  the  literature 
that  the  kind  of  unscrupulousness  certainly  not  condemned  by  Homer  in  his 
wily  Odysseus  persisted  into  the  Great  Age.  We  are  dealing  with  intangibles; 
but  it  looks  as  if  the  standards  of  "fair  play"  both  in  ethics  and  in  conduct 
of  these  Greek  aristocrats  fell  rather  below  that  of  later  aristocracies  at  their 
best.  Aristophanes,  Thucydides,  and  Plato  together  cover  a  lot  of  ground. 
They  share  little,  perhaps,  but  a  common  feeling  (hat  their  Athens  is  going 
wrong — morally  wrong.  The  first  two  in  particular  are  good  observers  as  well 
as  good  moralists.  From  them  all  there  emerges  the  sense  of  a  society  in 
which  the  desire  to  win,  to  excel,  to  shine,  to  rise,  is  breaking  down  the  con- 
ventional restraints  of  morality,  the  rules  of  the  game.10 

The  Greeks  of  the  Great  Age  were  then  engaged  in  an  agon  that  often 
looks  like  a  mad  scramble.  But  their  ideal  of  the  beautiful-and-good  was  by 
no  means  without  influence  on  the  goals,  at  least,  of  the  competitors.  The 
Greek  aristocrat  of  the  Age  of  Pericles  would  not  have  cared  to  succeed  as 
Rockefeller  succeeded,  nor  as  St.  Francis  succeeded,  nor  as  St.  Simeon  Stylites 

10  These  are  war  and  postwar  writers,  and  I  should  grant  that  they  and  their  society 
reflect  the  deep  wounds  such  wars  make,  especially  on  intellectuals.  But  I  do  not 
think  one  can  find  a  more  golden  and  moral  age  in  the  years  immediately  preceding 
431,  not  even  among  the  men  who  fought  at  Marathon.  Themistocles  turned  traitor; 
Demaratus,  king  of  Sparta,  took  refuge  with  the  Persian  enemy.  Alcibiades  was  not 
the  first. 


Greece:  The  Great  Age 

succeeded.  All  three  of  these  men  would  have  seemed  to  the  Greek  to  have 
pursued  unworthy  ends — money,  mystic  poverty,  self-castigating  austerity; 
indeed,  the  latter  two  would  have  been,  probably,  quite  incomprehensible 
pursuits  to  a  Xenophon.  But  here  Rockefeller  gives  us  a  better  start.  The 
Greek  of  the  Great  Age  did  not  disdain  wealth;  it  was  for  him  an  indispen- 
sable moral  good.  The  poor  man  could  not,  in  this  ethics,  be  a  good  man. 
The  pursuit  of  wealth,  though,  was  beneath  this  aristocrat,  as  we  shall  soon 
see.  He  would  have  counted  Rockefeller  out  of  the  moral  community  of  the 
beautiful-and-good  merely  because  he  was  a  businessman.  But  he  would  also 
have  thought  that  Rockefeller — like  the  Croesus  of  his  own  legends — had 
simply  too  much  money,  indecently  too  much,  even  had  it  been  inherited. 

|5Ve  are  at  perhaps  the  most  familiar  part  of  Greek  ethics,  the  concept  of 
the  Golden  Mean,  of  nothing  in  excess.  Aristotle  has  in  the  Nicomachean 
Ethics  given  it  classic  expression.  Courage  is  a  virtue,  for  the  beautiful-and- 
good  one  of  the  very  highest  virtues.  Cowardice,  which  is  insufficiency  of 
courage,  is  a  vice;  but  so,  too,  is  foolhardiness,  rashness,  the  caricatural 
"courage"  of  the  show-off,  which  is  the  excess  of  courage.  This  kind  of  anal- 
ysis can  be  applied  to  a  great  range  of  human  conduct.  Prudent  care  of  one's 
money,  good  stewardship,  is  a  virtue;  the  spendthrift  is  a  bad  man,  but  so,  too, 
is  the  miser^ 

We  may  here  note  that  there  has  been  a  good  deal  of  hostile  criticism  of 
this  ideal  of  the  Golden  Mean,  criticism  no  doubt  basically  directed  at  the 
implications  for  conduct  of  the  ideal,  but  framed  as  criticism  of  the  logical 
implications  of  its  wording  in  specific  cases.  Does  a  term  like  "excess"  of 
courage  make  sense?  Has  foolhardiness  any  relation  to  courage?  Or,  to  take 
a  modem  instance,  the  rationalist  J.  M.  Robertson  writes  that  a  pickpocket 
could  "claim  to  observe  the  mean  between  robbery  with  violence  and  the 
spiritless  honesty  which  never  steals  at  all,  and  to  be  thus,  on  Aristotelian 
principles,  a  virtuous  man  in  that  respect."11  The  phrase  "in  that  respect," 
which  the  reader  does  not  notice  and  is  not  supposed  to  notice,  no  doubt 
saves  Robertson's  logic  in  this  particular  piece  of  casuistry,  a  somewhat  sus- 
pect but  often  useful  way  of  thinking  about  moral  problems.  To  Aristotle,  of 
course,  the  instance  would  have  been  pointless;  pickpockets  are  just  not 
allowed  to  compete  for  the  prize  of  the  beautiful-and-good. 

The  real  objections  to  the  ideal  of  the  Golden  Mean  are  more  deeply 
rooted  in  human  attitudes  toward  this  world  and  the  next  than  casuistry,  at 

11  John  Mackinnon  Robertson,  A  Short  History  of  Morals,  London,  Watts,  1920,  p. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

least  on  the  surface,  usually  reveals.  The  ideal  of  these  Greek  gentlemen 
seems  to  most  of  those  who  dislike  it  to  be  commonplace,  pedestrian,  dull, 
unheroic.  It  seems  to  seek  compromise  where  the  truly  good  man  ought  to 
fight  to  the  death.  It  is  earth-bound,  wingless.  We  are  here  at  our  first  clear 
confrontation  with  another  of  the  inevitable  dualisms  we  shall  have  to  deal 
with  throughout  this  history,  one  we  know  best  as  the  contrast  of  the  romantic 
with  the  classical,  a  contrast  that  has  as  much  meaning  for  the  historian  of 
morals  as  for  the  historian  of  art  and  letters,  a  contrast  we  can  by  no  means 
summarize  here.  An  old  pair  of  symbols  will  have  to  do:  the  romantic  is  the 
soaring  Gothic  cathedral;  the  classical,  the  confined  Greek  temple,  clinging 
to  the  ground.12 

Now  it  is  the  romantic  to  whom  the  ideal  of  the  Golden  Mean  is  unac- 
ceptable. To  the  classicist,  it  has  been,  ever  since  it  was  first  so  clearly  stated 
by  the  Greeks,  one  of  the  foundations  of  his  view  of  life.  And  the  views  are 
certainly  different  Where  the  romanticist  sees  in  the  Golden  Mean  an  ignoble 
contentedness  with  the  easy,  the  ordinary,  the  average,  the  classicist  sees  in  it 
a  difficult  striving,  quite  as  heroic  as  any  ascent  to  heaven  or  descent  to 
hell,  to  attain  on  earth  something  by  no  means  there  for  all  to  snatch;  above 
all,  no  average,  no  compromise,  such  as  mere  common  sense  takes  those  terms 
to  mean,  but  a  standard,  an  ideal;  no  product  of  statistics,  but,  rather,  of  the 
very  human  drive  to  transcendence  the  romanticist  likes  to  claim  as  his  sole 
property.  There  is  nothing  ordinary  or  average,  the  classicist  will  insist,  about 
the  Venus  de  Milo,  nor  Pericles,  nor  the  Parthenon.  He  is  likely  to  go  further, 
and  maintain  that  basically  the  ideal  of  the  beautiful-and-good  is  for  the 
moralist  not  unlike  what  the  ideal  of  health  is  for  the  physician,  only  more 
difficult  to  attain,  and  rarer.  We  must  return  to  this  theme  when  we  come  to 

Still  another  set  of  attributes  needs  to  be  added  to  this  Greek  ideal  of  the 
Golden  Mean,  attributes  that  have  a  moral  as  well  as  a  more  obvious  aesthetic 
character/The  Greek  admired  restraint,  spareness,  simplicityTjHere,  too,  the 
"classical"  canon,  as  it  has  developed,  no  doubt  distorts  and  exaggerates. 
Those  calm,  now  weathered  Greek  statues  were  once  gilded,  painted  in  bright 
colors.  Greek  joy  was  often  unrestrained.  Greeks  of  the  Great  Age  employed 

12  Spengler's  antithesis  of  Faustian  (romantic)  and  Apollonian  (classical)  remains  one 
of  the  fullest  and  most  interesting  developments  of  this  theme.  See  the  Decline  of  the 
West,  Vol.  I,  pp.  183  if.  I  suppose  to  the  old-fashioned  nominalist,  who  often  dis- 
guises himself  today  as  a  scientist — especially  a  social  or  behavioral  scientist — all  this, 
and  the  very  concepts  "romantic"  and  "classical,"  is  nonsense.  But  it  is  singularly  use- 
ful nonsense,  indeed  indispensable  nonsense,  for  the  student  of  human  affairs. 


Greece:  The  Great  Age 

hyperbole — witness  Aristophanes — as  well  as  litotes;  both  words  and  things 
are  Greek.  Yet  surely  no  one  would  use  the  word  "lush"  of  fifth-century 
Greece;  indeed,  the  connotations  of  "lush"  are  overwhelmingly  romantic, 
Faustian.  Morally,  there  is  more  than  a  trace  of  the  Stoic  in  Greece  even 
before  Zeno  taught  on  the  Stoa. 

The  ideals  of  the  agon  and  the  Golden  Mean  are  very  specifically  ideals 
meant  in  their  Athenian  fifth-century  origin  to  be  valid  only  for  an  aristocratic 
minority.  Work,  undignified,  necessary  work,  as  the  world  knows  it,  makes 
the  good  life  impossible.13  The  smith  has  to  develop  his  muscles  to  a  point 
well  beyond  Apollonian  symmetry;  the  bookkeeper  bending  over  his  accounts 
starves  both  his  body  and  his  soul.  Workers  of  any  sort  are  bound  to  be 
specialized  professionals;  and  the  beautiful-and-good  was  as  firmly  an  ideal 
of  the  amateur,  the  all-around  man,  as  was  the  ideal  of  the  modern  British 
upper  classes,  who  used  to  be,  of  course,  brought  up  on  a  nice  version  of 
Greek  culture.  For  the  activities  that  disqualify  for  the  attainment  of  true 
virtue,  the  Greeks  had  a  word  which  sometimes  attains  unabridged  English 
dictionaries  in  the  form  "banausic,"  though  we  do  not  have  much  use  for  it. 
Banausic  are  most  of  the  activities  which  engage  us  all  today,  for  few  of  us 
can  even  try  to  live  up  to  the  letter  of  the  Greek  ideal  of  the  beautiful-and- 
good.14  Many  modern  commentators  on  the  ancient  Greeks  have  seemed  to 
feel  a  need  to  apologize  for  the  very  concept  "banausic."  Yet  the  ideal  lives 
on,  as  it  did  in  Athens  itself,  in  a  society  committed  to  democratic  egali- 

The  ideal  of  the  beautiful-and-good  man  is  not  as  selfish  as  it  must  seem 
from  the  foregoing,  not  as  individualistic  as  we  today  usually  take  the  term 
to  imply — that  is,  in  something  like  the  frame  of  reference  of  Spencer's  The 
Man  versus  the  State.  There  is  no  need  here  to  take  back  the  remarks  I  have 
made  above  concerning  the  extreme  competitiveness  of  Greek  life  among 
these  gentlemen.  But,  to  qualify  a  bit,  it  was  a  competitiveness  that  had  as  a 
balancing  force,  even  in  Athens,  the  soldier's  acceptance  of  discipline,  the 
citizen's  acceptance  of  law  and  custom,  the  believer's  acceptance  of  the  pieties 
of  religion,  even  a  touch  of  the  old  patriarch's  sense  of  responsibility  for  the 

13  The  familiar  brief  statement  is:  "No  man  can  practice  virtue  who  is  living  the  life 
of  a  mechanic  or  laborer."  Aristotle,  Politics,  Book  HI,  Chap.  5.  The  word  translated 
''virtue"  is,  of  course,  the  untranslatable  arete.  It  is  sometimes  translated  as  "ex- 
cellence " 

14  It  is  interesting  to  consider  how  many  of  our  stereotypes  would  have  made  no  sense 
to  the  Greeks  of  the  Great  Age.  What  would  Socrates  have  thought  of  Edison's 
"Genius  is  one  per-cent  inspiration  and  ninety-nine  per-cent  perspiration"? 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

family.  Another  commonplace  of  the  manuals  is  here  essential:  the  Greeks, 
even  again  the  Athenian,  were,  in  the  oft-cited  phrase  of  Aristotle,  political 
animals,  men  made  to  live  in  a  polis;  and  the  man  who  showed  some  signs  of 
setting  himself  up  as  a  rugged  individualist  to  the  neglect  of  the  conventional 
duties  of  the  citizen  was  known  by  a  word  which  has  become  our  word 
"idiot."  Again,  a  needed  complementary  consideration,  the  strong  element  of 
the  Homeric  hero  and  his  drive  to  compete,  and  win,  which  survives  in  the 
fifth  century,  a  really  frenetic  competitiveness,  was  limited  to  activities,  shall 
we  say,  not  banausic — to  art,  letters,  sports,  to  the  life  of  the  country  gentle- 
man. Unbridled  competitiveness  in  matters  of  business  was  never  what  it  was 
to  be  in  the  nineteenth-century  West — a  truly  important  matter.  It  is  perhaps 
unfortunate  that  war  and  politics  were  not  also  thought  banausic  in  Athens; 
here  the  spirit  of  the  agon  quite  gainsaid,  with  disastrous  results,  the  ideal  of 
the  Golden  Mean. 

Though  much  of  the  ideal  of  the  Great  Age  was  real,  and  realized,  the 
gaps  between  real  and  ideal  began  opening  widely  with  the  Peloponnesian 
War.  The  shades  again  are  subtle.  But  what  with  Pericles  sounds  as  lofty  as 
the  Gettysburg  Address  begins  with  the  later  Isocrates  to  sound  faintly  like 
George  Babbitt,  to  have  a  touch  of  that  vulgar  "pooled  self-esteem"  that  the 
sensitive  detect  in  modern  patriotic  loyalties.  Pericles,  as  reported  by  Thu- 
cydides,  is  certainly  proud  of  Athens,  "an  education  to  Greece";  but  his  tone 
is  not  that  of  Isocrates,  who  boasts,  "Our  city  was  not  only  so  beloved  of  the 
Gods  but  so  devoted  to  mankind  .  .  .  that  she  shared  with  all  men  what  she 
had  received."  There  follows  the  Rotarian  touch,  "service  of  mankind."15 
Pericles  at  least  spoke  before  Mytilene,  before  Melos,  before  Syracuse; 
Isocrates  spoke  after  Athenians  had  given  in  these  places  somewhat  paradox- 
ical evidence  of  their  devotion  to  the  "service  of  mankind." 

Perhaps  the  gap  between  ideal  and  real  in  Athens  had  never  been  a  small 
one,  even  in  the  best  days  of  Pericles.  Yet  it  was  certainly  smaller  than  it 
became  in  the  days  of  Cleon,  or  the  Thirty  Tyrants,  or  the  restored  democ- 
racy of  the  fourth  century.  There  is  the  possibility,  hopeful  or  discouraging 
as  you  may  feel  it,  that  the  failure  of  Athens  was  at  bottom  the  failure  of  a 
democracy  to  live  up  to  an  aristocratic  set  of  goals,  choosing  a  Cleon  rather 
than  a  Pericles  or  an  Aristides,  perhaps  even  choosing  a  Cleon  in  the  belief 
that  it  was  choosing  a  man  like  these.  This  is  an  oversimplification,  no  doubt, 

15  Isocrates,  Panegyricus,  28,  trans,  by  George  Norlin,  London,  Heinemann,  Loeb 
Classical  Library,  1928,  Vol.  I,  p.  135. 


Greece:  The  Great  Age 

like  the  parallel  notion  that  Christianity,  which  also  sets  most  aristocrat! 
standards,  has  kept  alive  only  by  not  trying  to  apply  those  standards  to  th 
conduct  of  the  many. 

Yet  we  need  not  add  to  the  long  list  of  those  who,  from  Plato  on,  hav 
blamed  the  ills  of  Athens  on  the  spread  of  egalitarian  and  democratic  ways 
Sparta,  where  these  ways  never  were  followed,  failed  as  miserably  and  a 
quickly  as  did  Athens  in  the  dog-eat-dog  military  competition  among  th 
Greek  city-states.  Sparta,  too,  has  left  her  mark  on  the  moral  history  of  th 
West.  Among  the  ancients,  the  Spartan  tone  and  the  Spartan  achievemen 
were  admired  perhaps  more  than  were  the  Athenian.  It  was  the  Italian  Renais 
sance  that  set  Athens  up  so  firmly  as  the  symbol  for  the  Greek  achievemenl 
Florence,  even  the  Florence  of  Savonarola's  brief  triumph,  could  never  hav 
felt  an  affinity  for  Sparta. 

We  know  about  Sparta  chiefly  through  the  writings  of  Athenian  contem 
poraries  of  the  Great  Age,  men  like  Plato,  Thucydides,  and  Xenophon,  whi 
were  shocked  by  what  seemed  to  them  the  democratic  indiscipline  of  Athen 
and  sought  in  Spartan  virtues  a  cure  for  Athenian  laxity,  and  through  late 
writers  like  Plutarch,  whose  sources  were  hardly  better  than  ours.  Yet  th 
main  facts  about  Sparta  are  clear  enough.  The  inland  plain  of  Lacedaemoni 
was  settled  by  one  of  the  last  bands  of  Dorian  invaders,  who  subjects 
earlier  inhabitants  to  an  inferior  but  not  fully  servile  status.  Sparta  seems  a 
first  to  have  gone  the  normal  way  of  Greek  city-states,  fighting  with  he 
neighbors,  but  also  nourishing  a  vigorous  artistic  and  intellectual  life.  Thei 
there  came,  within  a  generation  or  so,  what  looks  in  the  Spartan  society  lib 
a  kind  of  transformation  we  know  well  enough  in  the  personality  of  the  ran 
individual — the  sudden  turn  that  made  Francesco  Bernardone  into  St.  Franci 
of  Assisi,  for  instance — but  that  we  do  not  expect  in  a  whole  society  evei 
from  what  we  call  a  "revolution."  Sometime  in  the  seventh  century  B.C. 
Sparta — all  Spartans — gave  up  poetry  and  music,  save  as  aids  to  militar 
ardor,  gave  up  talking — always  a  Greek  delight — gave  up  even  the  privat 
and  normal  forms  of  family  life  to  become  an  aristocratic  communist  city 
state  and  society. 

The  Greek  ideal  of  the  beautiful-and-good  gets  twisted  almost,  but  no 
quite,  out  of  recognition  in  the  great  barracks  that  Sparta  became.  The  idea 
of  bodily  health  and  strength  is  focused  on  the  toughness  of  the  soldier,  on 
superhuman  endurance  of  hardship  and  pain.  The  agon  is  there,  but  amon 
the  Spartiates  it  is  narrowed  to  a  competition  in  military  prowess,  and,  eva 
more  than  in  the  rest  of  Greece,  channeled,  controlled,  into  a  collectiv 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

effort  to  keep  Sparta  first  among  the  Greek  city-states.  The  old  Odyssean 
note  of  admiration  for  successful  cunning  and  deceit  is  there,  it,  too,  oddly 
contorted  in  this  barracks  air.  Perhaps  the  best-known  tale  from  Sparta  is  the 
one  made  familiar  by  Plutarch  of  the  Spartan  lad,  trained  to  thieve  but  with 
the  proviso  he  must  never  get  caught  in  theft,  who  stoically,  Spartanly,  en- 
dured a  stolen  fox  gnawing  at  his  vitals  under  the  folds  of  his  cloak  rather 
than  admit  his  guilt.  The  restraint  is  there,  now  made  austerity,  if  not  insanity; 
the  Spartan  would  not  even  permit  himself  the  luxury  of  speech.  He  spoke 

The  Golden  Mean  has  quite  vanished.  The  Spartan  had  no  use  for  the 
middle  of  the  road,  for  compromise;  for  him  the  Greek  folk  wisdom  of 
"nothing  in  excess"  did  not  hold.  He  could  not  have  too  much  discipline, 
could  not  be  too  literal-minded  in  obeying  commands,  could  not  remain  too 
much  aloof  from  the  undignified  business  of  managing  his  estate,  could  not 
banish  art  and  letters  too  completely  from  his  life.  No  major  society  in  the 
West,  perhaps,  ever  tried  so  thoroughly  to  transcend  the  limitations  of  Homo 
sapiens  as  did  the  Spartan.  It  was  an  extraordinary  attempt,  and  it  succeeded 
for  a  few  generations.  We  cannot  here  attempt  to  trace  the  decline  of  Sparta 
and  the  failure  of  the  attempt  to  perpetuate  so  inhuman  a  way  of  life.  But  a 
few  of  the  contributing  factors  must  especially  interest  us.  For  one  thing,  it  is 
clear  that  Spartan  contempt  for  the  intellectual  life  coupled  with  their  devo- 
tion to  tradition,  to  doing  what  always  had  been  done,  made  it  difficult  for 
them  to  solve  problems  involving  new  factors.  Even  in  their  specialty,  war, 
they  could  not  change  fast  enough  to  cope  with  the  Theban  innovation  of  the 
phalanx,  and  went  down  in  defeat.  The  Spartan  Thermopylae  surely  deserves 
its  place  in  a  noble  tradition  that  has  helped  men  to  find  a  courage  they  never 
cease  to  need.  And  yet,  was  it  that  much  better  than  the  charge  of  the  Light 
Brigade,  on  which  we  now  surely  accept  French  Marshal  Bosquet's  verdict; 
C'est  magnifique,  mats  ce  n'est  pas  la  guerre?  True,  Tennyson  now  sounds 
empty,  silly. 

Theirs  not  to  make  reply, 
Theirs  not  to  reason  why, 
Theirs  but  to  do  and  die, 
Into  the  valley  of  Death 
Rode  the  six  hundred. 

And  Simonides  has  still  the  perfect  word: 


Greece:  The  Great  Age 
O  passer-by,  tell  the  Lacedaemonians  that  we  lie  here  obeying  their  orders.16 

The  Greek  spell  is  hard  to  break,  hard,  above  all,  for  the  chaste  realist  to 
break,  who  has  no  trouble  with  the  Loreleis  and  the  belles  dames  sans  merci 
of  mere  romance. 

Again,  the  fine  Spartan  soldierly  contempt  for  economic  matters,  and  the 
curious  communistic  life  the  adult  males  spent  in  barracks  and  on  campaigns, 
meant  that  their  wives  and  stewards  got  control  of  property,  with  results 
disastrous  to  the  necessary  economic  basis  of  equality  among  the  Spartiates. 
Finally,  the  Spartiates  in  the  fourth  century  simply  began  to  die  out,  to  fail  to 
propagate,  a  result  probably  linked  with  their  long  absences  from  home  on 
campaigns,  and  the  exaggerated  military  communism  which  actually  made  it 
hard  for  them  to  sleep  at  all  with  their  wives.  But  most  narrow  aristocracies 
tend  not  to  perpetuate  themselves  by  natural  births,  and  have  to  recruit  new 
members  one  way  or  another.  Spartan  excessive  exclusiveness  made  this  way 
impossible;  one  had  to  be  born  a  Spartiate,  and  fewer  and  fewer  were  born 

The  historian  of  morals  must  ask  the  obvious  question:  How  did  Sparta 
happen  to  develop  so  unusual,  so  "unnatural,"  a  society?  The  occasion  is  clear 
enough.  In  a  first  war  at  the  end  of  the  eighth  century,  Sparta  conquered 
neighboring  Messenia,  but  instead  of  merely  exacting  a  tribute  and  a  few 
border  settlements — in  the  Greek,  as  in  the  later  Western  world,  there  were 
international  decencies — she  proceeded  to  outrage  these  decencies  and  annex 
Messenia  and  make  Helots,  or  serfs,  of  the  Messenians.  Almost  a  century 
later,  a  ferocious  revolt  of  the  Messenians,  crushed  with  difficulty,  seems  to 
have  alarmed  the  rulers  of  Sparta,  who  then  put  through  an  extraordinary  set 
of  reforms  which  made  the  Spartiates  the  military  communists  we  meet  at 
Thermopylae  and  many  another  field.  But  surely  Messenia  was  but  the  pull 
on  the  trigger.  The  gun  was  loaded.  The  real  problem  is  why  the  Spartans 
responded  as  they  did  to  a  problem  other  peoples  had  solved  quite  differently, 
by  assimilating  the  conquered,  by  compromises  of  all  sorts,  even  by  retreat 
from  a  difficult  position,  the  favored  solution  among  the  wicked  imperialist 
powers  of  today.  The  answer  can  never  be  certain,  but  it  looks  as  if  there 
were  perhaps  a  certain  analogy  with  the  experience  of  the  Jews.  The  Dorian 
band  or  bands  that  settled  in  Laconia  may  well  have  been  especially  hardened 

16  Tennyson,  'The  Charge  of  the  Light  Brigade,"  in  Works,  Boston,  Houghton  Mif- 
flin,  1898,  p.  226;  Simonides,  "On  the  Spartans  at  Thermopylae,"  in  Select  Epigrams 
from  the  Greek  Anthology,  trans,  by  J.  W.  Mackail,  3d  ed.  rev.,  New  York,  Long- 
mans, 1911,  Section  m,  No.  4. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

by  their  wanderings.  In  their  early  years  in  Laconia  even  their  art  bore  a 
stamp  of  warlike  energy  of  stubborn  weight.  Tyrtaeus,  while  Spartans  were 
still  poets,  could  write  so  symbolically  Spartan  a  line  as 

So  let  each  man  bite  his  lip  with  his  teeth  and  abide  firm-set  astride  the  ground.17 

In  the  critical  years  of  decision,  a  man  or  group  of  close-knit  leaders  almost 
certainly  swung  the  balance.  Lycurgus,  to  whom  legend  attributed  the  great 
reform,  may  be  in  strict  historical  rigor  as  shadowy,  if  not  as  mythical,  a 
figure  as  Moses.  But  some  one  or  some  few  surely  did — and  in  a  crisis — what 
Lycurgus  is  supposed  to  have  done. 


The  beautiful-and-good,  then,  even  in  its  Spartan  caricature  or  perversion,  is 
the  moral  ideal,  the  concept  of  the  admirable  and  enviable  person  the  Greeks 
of  the  Great  Age  of  the  polis  cherished.  Presented  and  preserved  in  an  art  and 
literature  that  has  survived  the  praise  of  its  many  admirers,  it  is  still  a  living 
ideal  in  the  West.  We  must,  however,  try  further  to  probe  what  kind  of  moral 
lives  these  ancient  Greek  admirers  of  the  Golden  Mean  really  led.  As  almost 
always  until  very  recent  times,  we  can  tell  very  little  of  how  the  masses  lived. 
Certainly  for  Athens  of  the  fifth  century  it  seems  pretty  clear  that  this  culture, 
moral  as  well  as  intellectual,  spread  downward  to  most  of  the  actual  urbanized 
population.  Sources  like  the  pamphleteer  known  as  the  Old  Oligarch,  who 
complains  that  the  very  slaves  in  Athens  do  not  respect  their  superiors,  Aris- 
tophanes, above  all,  give  us  a  glimpse — the  first  in  Western  history — of  a 
lively,  slick,  "sophisticated"  city  people,  quick  to  imitate  and,  if  you  like, 
vulgarize  the  tastes  and  ways  of  their  betters.  We  get  again  a  glimpse  of  the 
fact  that  the  sober  country  folk,  only  a  few  miles  away  in  Attica,  thought  the 
city  dwellers  morally  loose  and  untrustworthy.  This  remains  a  pattern  even  in 
contemporary  America,  where  technological  advances  have  almost  eliminated 
material  differences  between  city  and  country.  Like  most  such  patterns,  it  has 
elements  of  truth;  the  Athenian,  like  the  later  Parisian  and  the  Cockney,  was 
no  slow,  steady,  wordless  follower  of  established  routine.  But  one  element  in 
the  pattern,  the  belief  that  these  bright  talkative  city  people  lacked  stamina, 
endurance,  manliness,  was  probably  as  untrue  then  as  aerial  bombardment 
proved  it  to  be  of  great  Western  metropolitan  centers  in  our  day.  The 
Athenians  did  not  lose  their  great  war  through  any  failure  of  nerve  among 

if  Elegy  and  Iambus,  trans,  by  J.  M  Edmonds,  London,  Heinemann,  1931,  Loeb 
Classical  Library,  p.  71. 


Greece:  The  Great  Age 

the  common  people,  nor  through  a  lack  of  public  spirit  among  them.  Here 
Arnold  Toynbee  seems  to  be  right:  their  betters  led  them  into  a  series  of 
only  outwardly  successful  conquests  which  did  violence  to  the  habits  and 
ideals  of  the  polls. 

Two  things  need  to  be  kept  in  mind  in  any  attempt  to  judge  the  moral 
level  of  Greek  life  in  the  Great  Age.  First,  the  Greeks  were  very  few  genera- 
tions removed  from  a  relatively  primitive  tribal  society.  The  notion  embodied 
in  what  used  to  be  called  the  "miracle  of  Greece"  has  been  abandoned.  Study 
of  the  Aegean  civilization  centering  on  Crete,  which  had  been  highly  devel- 
oped before  the  Greek  bands  came  down  on  it,  has  made  it  clear  that  the 
Greeks  did  not  create  their  mature  civilization  out  of  nothing,  and  in  a  few 
hundred  years.  Still,  however  much  they  may  have  taken  over  from  their 
predecessors,  the  fact  remains  that  their  poleis  were  new  institutions.  If  old 
tribal  habits  do  survive,  if  there  is  such  a  thing  as  cultural  lag,  we  should 
expect  the  Greeks  to  show  signs  of  them.  Second,  the  Greeks  were  always 
poor.  Their  land  was  mountainous  and  rocky,  their  soil  thin.  The  wealthiest  of 
the  poleis — Athens,  Corinth,  the  cities  of  Ionia — depended  on  commerce  and 
production  of  pottery  and  similar  work  of  craftsmanship.  The  rich  by  no 
means  attained  the  kind  of  luxury  that  was  to  be  made  possible  later  in  the 
Greco-Roman  world;  the  poor  were  poor  indeed,  and  numerous. 

With  this  background,  it  is  not  surprising  that  this  Greek  world  should  be 
a  world  of  violence,  a  world  in  which  death,  disease,  human  suffering  of  all 
kinds  were  accepted  in  something  like  the  way  we  accept  the  weather.  Care  is 
necessary  here:  I  do  not  mean  that  the  Greeks  took  suffering  callously;  nor 
do  I  mean  to  imply  that  our  own  is  a  culture  that  is  without  violence.  Our 
recent  wars  have  killed  on  a  hitherto  unequaled  scale;  our  technological  prog- 
ress, and  especially  the  internal-combustion  engine,  has  meant  that  what  we 
call  accidents  are  relatively  far  more  frequent  than  they  were  in  the  ancient 
world.  But  we  rebel  against  such  suffering,  and  try,  however  unsuccessfully, 
to  do  something  about  it;  the  Greeks  of  the  Great  Age,  though  they  felt  deeply 
the  extent  of  human  misery,  seem  not  to  have  believed  that  the  group,  society, 
"reforms,"  could  do  much  to  lessen  it.  Plato,  who  was  in  almost  all  the  modern 
connotations  of  the  word  an  idealist,  accepted  in  his  Utopia,  the  Republic,  war 
as  a  normal  function  of  the  perfect  state.  In  all  the  literature  that  has  come 
down  to  us  from  the  Great  Age,  you  will  find  it  hard  to  note  anything  you 
could  classify  as  an  expression  of  what  we  should  call  desire  for  humanitarian 
reform.  There  is,  indeed,  pity,  compassion,  eloquently  expressed,  though 
mostly  in  the  tragedies,  which  do  not  deal  with  the  lives  of  ordinary  people. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

In  Euripides,  this  pity  seems  at  times  to  direct  itself  to  the  oppressed,  th 
underdog,  but  even  in  Euripides  there  is  really  no  trace  of  what  we  might  ca 
a  "social  gospel."  We  shall  return  to  this  theme  with  the  Middle  Ages. 

Acceptance  of  violence  and  insecurity  in  ordinary  daily  life  is  the  norm* 
human  lot  until  almost  our  own  day.  But  later  Greek  ethical  systems,  and  th 
Christian  ethic,  did  at  least  introduce  a  concern  for  victims  of  violence 
injustice,  and  misfortune,  which  really  is  hard  to  find  in  the  Great  Age.  Sparta 
exposure  of  infants  who  did  not  measure  up  to  the  high  physical  standards  se 
for  males — and  females,  too,  for  the  Spartans  were  among  the  earliest  euger 
icists — is  hardly  surprising  in  that  abnormal  society.  But  infants  in  the  res 
of  Greece,  exposed  to  poverty  and  overpopulation,  were  very  commonl 
exposed.  As  a  good  British  reformer  of  our  own  day  puts  it,  "Socrates  (son  c 
a  mid-wife)  is  made  in  Plato's  Theaetetus  to  speak  of  putting  away  the  ne> 
born  infants  as  he  might  of  the  drowning  of  kittens."18 

Slavery  was  an  accepted  part  of  the  society  of  Greece.  The  slaves  wer 
for  the  most  part  prisoners  of  war,  or  victims  of  some  other  misfortune.  The 
were  not  in  these  early  days  of  a  very  different  racial  background  from  that  c 
their  masters.  Their  condition  varied  greatly  from  city-state  to  city-state,  an 
within  a  given  one,  in  accordance  with  what  work  they  did.  The  Helots  c 
Sparta,  serfs  in  formal  status  rather  than  chattel  slaves,  were  nonetheless  ver 
badly  treated  and  were  greatly  feared  by  their  masters.  The  familiar  tale 
from  Plutarch  are  revealing.  The  Spartan  leaders  would  at  intervals  get 
Helot  drunk  and  exhibit  him  to  the  young  Spartiates  as  an  object  lesson; 
special  secret  police  was  organized  to  spy  on  the  Helots  and  scent  out  plans  f  o 
revolt.  The  state  slaves  who  worked  the  silver  mines  at  Laurium  in  Attica  ha< 
a  hard  life  indeed;  on  the  other  hand,  the  police  at  Athens  were  commonl 
Thracian  slaves,  and  a  policeman's  lot  is  not  usually  an  unhappy  one.  It  i 
perhaps  true  that  an  Oxford  philhellene  like  the  late  Sir  Alfred  Zimmer 
makes  the  position  of  the  slave  in  Athens  a  bit  too  good;  "fellow-worker"— 
a  term  that  sounds  like  an  American  corporate  personnel  manager  a  fe\ 
decades  ago — is  no  translation  for  SoJlAos.  "Slave"  is  the  word.  Yet,  with  th 
exception  of  Sparta,  the  Greek  world  of  the  free  polis  was  not  one  in  whic] 
slavery  appears  at  anything  like  its  worst.  Emancipation  was  easy,  and  no 
uncommon;  the  slave  could  actually  earn  money  and  buy  his  freedom.  Bu 
there  is  almost  no  protest  against  the  institution  itself;  and  Aristotle's  opinioi 
that  a  slave  is  likely  to  be  by  nature  a  slave  is  no  doubt  representative  enougl 

18  Robertson,  Short  History  of  Morals,  p.  91.  The  reference  is  to  the  Theaetetus,  §§14S 


Greece:  The  Great  Age 

to  deserve  its  position  in  the  history  manuals.  The  slave  is  simply  not  a  free 
moral  agent.  Plato,  in  the  Lam,  has  the  physician  to  slaves  dictate  without 
explanation,  the  physician  to  freemen  make  the  patient  understand  the  disease 
and  treatment.19 

The  state  of  the  family  is  no  doubt  correlated  with  the  moral  state  of  a 
given  society.  Yet  the  correlation  is  nothing  as  simple  as  our  contemporary 
American  worriers  about  the  divorce  rate  like  to  make  out.  In  earlier  Western 
societies  one  expects  to  find  the  family  ties  strong,  and  the  father  of  the  family 
powerful.  The  family  in  the  Greek  polis  was  such  a  family.  It  should  be  noted 
at  the  start  in  a  society  entirely  without  any  provision  for  "social  security,'* 
either  through  state  laws  or  through  private  insurance,  the  family  was  the 
one  possible  form  of  old-age  insurance.  The  Greek  expected  his  children  to 
take  care  of  him  in  his  old  age;  the  children  expected  to  take  care  of  their  par- 
ents. In  Athens,  before  a  man  could  become  a  magistrate,  evidence  had  to  be 
produced  that  he  had  treated  his  parents  properly.  A  man  who  refused  his 
parents  food  and  dwelling  lost  his  right  of  speaking  in  the  assembly.  It  must 
be  noted  that  ordinarily  laws  of  this  sort  are  meant  to  take  care  of  the  excep- 
tional case,  the  case  that  makes  the  news.  We  need  not  conclude  that  Athenians 
commonly  let  their  parents  starve.20  These  were  firm  sentiments,  the  kind 
Pareto  called  "persistent  aggregates/'  and  they  were  strong  even  in  Athens, 
the  least  traditionalist  of  the  poleis.  Greek  literature  from  the  earliest  days 
is  full  of  evidence  of  the  strength  of  these  family  ties.  Again,  only  in  Sparta 
in  its  final  decline  is  there  evidence  of  the  kind  of  dissolution  of  the  family, 
including  loose  behavior  of  upper-class  wives,  that  is  found  at  certain  later 
stages  of  Roman  history. 

This  was  no  society  for  the  feminist.  The  "subjection"  of  Athenian  women 
in  particular  was  one  of  the  phases  of  life  in  that  much-to-be-admired  society 
that  called  for  most  regrets  from  Victorian  liberal  philhellenes.  The  Athenian 
wife  in  the  upper  classes,  and,  indeed,  rather  far  down  the  social  scale,  was 
held  firmly  to  her  domestic  duties  of  supervising  the  household  and  educating 
her  daughters  and  young  sons;  she  did  not  go  abroad  unattended,  nor  take  any 
part  in  public  life,  nor  in  the  social  life  of  her  menfolk,  the  dinners,  symposia, 
chattings  in  the  market  place.  Yet  the  gynaeceum  was  not  quite  a  harem,  and 
even  the  Athenian  wife  was  hardly  in  an  Oriental  seclusion.  There  is  in  the 

!9  Plato,  Laws,  §720,  in  Works,  trans,  by  B.  Jowett,  Oxford,  Oxford  University  Press, 
1892,  Vol.  V,  pp.  103-104. 

20  E.  Westermarck,  Origin  and  Development  of  the  Moral  Ideas,  Vol.  I,  p.  536,  quoting 
L.  Schmidt,  Die  Ethik  der  alien  Griechen  (1882). 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

surviving  literature  little  sign  that  she  was  discontented  with  her  lot,  which, 
after  all,  was  for  those  days  a  secure  one.  The  remarkable  Euripides,  who  can 
usually  be  trusted  to  anticipate  the  nineteenth  century,  does  show  traces, 
notably  in  the  Medea,  of  what,  if  you  do  not  mind  anachronisms,  you  can  call 
feminism.  But  there  is  little  else.  Masculine  supremacy  was  taken  for  granted 
in  the  Greek,  and  in  the  Greco-Roman,  world,  a  fact  amusingly  reflected  in 
the  universal  assumption  that  the  queen  bee  was  a  king.21  Demosthenes  could 
say  almost  incidentally  of  the  Greek  male — always,  of  course,  of  the  upper 
classes,  for  poverty  makes  monogamy  quite  bearable — "Mistresses  we  keep 
for  the  sake  of  pleasure,  concubines  for  the  daily  care  of  our  persons,  but 
wives  to  bear  us  legitimate  children  and  to  be  faithful  guardians  of  our  house- 

We  come  at  last  to  sex  relations,  a  topic  which,  to  the  pain  of  sensitive 
moralists,  does  seem  to  be  in  contemporary  vulgar  English  and  American  the 
first,  if  not  the  only,  thing  suggested  by  the  word  "morals."  It  is  a  topic  of 
major  concern  to  the  historian  of  Western  morals,  and  one  to  which  we  must 
recur.  Here  a  few  generalizations  may  help  to  guide  us  through  the  thickets 
that  lie  ahead — and  they  are  thickets,  of  clinical  reports,  of  pornography, 
sermons,  theological  writings,  poems,  novels,  faits  divers,  in  all  of  which  the 
clinical  and  the  pornographic  are  almost  always  inextricably  mixed — for  no 
one  can  take  sex  in  stride,  not  even  the  historian,  who,  according  to  Lytton 
Strachey  (who  should  have  known),  tends  to  be  not  very  strongly  sexed.23 

First,  human  sexual  activities  would  seem  to  be  an  especially  clear  and 
often  extreme  example  of  the  fact  that  the  word  and  the  deed  are  not  neces- 
sarily very  closely  united  in  human  life.  It  may  even  be  true  that  Homo 
sapiens  spends  more  time  and  energy  fantasying,  thinking,  talking,  and  writing 
about  sex  than  in  doing  anything  about  it.  In  the  frank  language  of  our  era — 
or,  at  any  rate,  of  our  novels — there  is  a  great  deal  of  paper  tail  in  the  world. 
One  doubts  whether  Don  Juan  actually  enjoyed — no,  not  enjoyed,  for  we  all 
know  now  that  the  Don  was  a  neurotic  incapable  of  genital  satisfaction,  but  one 
doubts  that  he  had  at  all — those  famous  1,003  Spanish  ladies.  In  the  West 
generally,  and  especially  after  the  introduction  of  Christian  prohibitions  added 

21  See  Vergil,  Georgics,  IV,  67.  Of  course,  Vergil's  use  of  "kings"  in  this  passage  may 
be  no  more  than  metaphor.  But  the  ancients  could  not  have  understood  the  sex  life  of 
the  bees. 

22  Demosthenes,  Private  Orations,  trans,  by  A.  T.  Murray,  London,  Hememann  1939, 
Loeb  Classical  Library,  Vol.  n,  Neaera,  pp.  445-447. 

23  L.  Strachey,  Portraits  in  Miniature,  London,  Chatto  and  Windus,  1933,  "Essay  on 
Macaulay,"  p.  177. 

Greece:  The  Great  Age 

zest  to  fornication,  men  and  women  have  found  in  sexual  conquests  a  great 
reinforcement  of  their  egos,  a  real  sense  of  achievement.  Moreover,  from  the 
very  fact  that  love-making  is  almost  always  conducted  in  privacy,  it  is  easy  in- 
deed to  claim  a  conquest  never  in  fact  achieved.  Again,  in  a  great  many  periods 
of  Western  history,  not  just  in  our  own,  verbal  frankness  about  sex  has  been 
fashionable.  There  are  no  doubt  many  other,  and  deeper,  roots  for  this  con- 
duct. The  upshot  of  it  all  for  the  historian  of  morals  should  be  clear:  Do  not 
conclude,  and  especially  not  for  brief  periods,  such  as,  say,  from  1880  to  1920 
in  our  day,  that  because  there  is  a  change  in  the  way  men  talk  and  write  about 
sexual  matters  there  is  a  corresponding  change  in  their  conduct. 

Second,  it  may  be  possible  to  go  even  further  and  entertain  at  least  the 
possibility  that  in  routine  matters  of  private  morality — sex  relations,  personal 
honesty,  family  loyalties,  in  short,  much  of  the  moral  realm  of  the  Ten  Com- 
mandments— there  is  for  the  inarticulate  many  something  like  a  rough  con- 
stant of  conduct  over  long  periods,  that  in  the  whole  of  our  short  Western 
history  there  has  been  relatively  little  change  in  this  respect.  I  suggest  this 
very  tentatively.  I  do  not  mean  to  deny  that  there  are  times  and  places,  and 
especially  social  classes  or  other  groups,  of  great  moral  looseness,  and  others 
of  great  moral  strictness,  in  terms  of  the  great  Western  moral  codes.  But  I  think 
it  possible,  for  instance,  that  if  we  could  construct  a  kind  of  Kinsey  report  on 
the  sexual  behavior  of  the  Western  male  since  600  B.C.,  we  should  find  varia- 
tions much  less  striking  than  those  we  find  in  our  literary  sources.  I  feel  very 
sure  that  we  should  find  nothing  remotely  like  the  simple  development  Mr. 
Sorokin  traces  from  an  "ideational"  period  in  which  men  are  wholly  innocent 
and  continent  in  matters  of  sex  relations  to  a  "sensate"  period  (we  are  right  in  it 
now)  in  which  men  are  wholly  guilty  and  heroically  incontinent  in  such  mat- 
ters. We  must  recur  to  this  problem  of  "cyclical"  changes  in  conduct  and 
morals,  and  in  the  end  to  the  wider  one  of  moral  dynamics  or  evolution.  It  is 
a  very  difficult  one,  hardly  to  be  solved  with  our  present  analytical  means. 
But  it  can  only  be  further  befuddled  if  we  assume  that  changes  in  taste,  man- 
ners, and  in  what  the  imperfect  historical  record  tells  us  about  what  men  have 
said  about  their  conduct  are  in  themselves  proof  that  ordinary  men  and 
women  have  in  fact  changed  their  conduct.  The  upper  classes,  for  one  thing 
because  they  can  afford  change,  may  be  expected  to  change  more  rapidly  than 
the  lower  classes.  The  degree  to  which  the  lower  classes  trust  and  admire  and 
imitate  the  upper  classes — if  you  dislike  this  way  of  putting  it,  say  "ruling 
classes,"  or  "elites"  and  "ruled"  or  "followers" — is  certainly  subject  to  great 
variations.  Morale — not  in  English  identical  in  meaning  with  morals — is  also 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

subject  to  change.  To  all  this  we  must  return  in  a  final  chapter,  but  it  will  be 
well  to  keep  these  problems  in  mind  throughout. 

The  Greek  in  the  street  of  the  Great  Age  seems  to  have  been  sexually  nor- 
mal enough,  if  that  word  has  any  meaning  in  relation  to  sex.  His  religion  held 
up  to  him  no  warnings  that  the  gods  objected  to  love-making — quite  the 
reverse,  for  Zeus  outdid  Don  Juan,  and  seems,  on  the  whole,  unlike  the  Don,  to 
have  enjoyed  himself  in  the  process.  On  the  other  hand,  there  is  no  evidence 
that  the  Greek  in  the  street  was  notably  promiscuous;  he  had  trouble  enough 
providing  for  his  family.  He  seems  not  to  have  been  greatly  addicted  to  ro- 
mantic, or  obsessive,  or  any  other  vicarious  sexual  satisfaction  of  the  kind  we 
symbolize  by  the  word  "Hollywood."  It  is  true  that  we  do  not  have  the 
sources  we  need  to  have  to  be  sure  of  this.  But  we  do  have  the  Old  Comedy  of 
Aristophanes,  much  of  which  is  clearly  directed  to  the  tastes  of  the  many,  of 
the  "pit,"  who  must,  the  suspicion  lingers  in  the  mind  of  all  but  the  blindest 
lover  of  old  Athens,  have  often  found  Sophocles  and  Euripides  hard  going. 
Now  Aristophanes  is  often  obscene,  but  there  is  in  him  no  trace  of  boudoir  or 
Palais  Royal  sex,  let  alone  of  Hollywood  sex.  When  he  actually  brought  the 
bed  onto  the  stage  in  Lysistrata,  the  audience  must  have  been  so  interested 
in  the  high  comedy — and  high  politics — involved  in  the  situation  as  to  have 
suffered  no  sexual  stimulation  at  all.  Aristophanes  seems  to  find  sex  amusing, 
an  attitude  often  by  no  means  unfavorable  to  comparative  continence  in 
actual  conduct. 

There  is,  however,  evidence  in  the  Greek  literature  of  high  seriousness, 
of  an  attitude  toward  sex  very  different  from  ours.  In  a  familiar  passage  at  the 
very  beginning  of  the  Republic,  Plato  has  the  aged  Cephalus,  who  appears 
as  a  thoroughly  conventional  old  gentleman,  remark: 

How  well  I  remember  the  aged  poet  Sophocles,  when  in  answer  to  the  question, 
How  does  love  suit  with  age,  Sophocles — are  you  still  the  man  you  were?  Peace, 
he  replied;  most  glady  have  I  escaped  the  thing  of  which  you  speak;  I  feel  as  if 
I  had  escaped  from  a  mad  and  furious  master.24 

Hesiod,  too,  thought  of  love  in  terms  not  of  modern  romance: 

24  The  Republic  of  Plato.  §  329,  trans,  by  B.  Jowett,  Oxford,  Oxford  University  Press, 
1921.  Jowett  made  this  translation  in  High  Victorian  times.  I  cannot,  as  a  historian  of 
morals,  resist  the  temptation  to  cite  the  version  of  this  passage  that  the  late  A.  D. 
Lindsay  made  in  Georgian  times:  'Take  the  poet  Sophocles,  for  example.  I  was  with 
him  once,  when  someone  asked  him:  'How  do  you  stand,  Sophocles,  in  respect  to  the 
pleasures  of  sex?  Are  you  still  capable  of  intercourse?'  'Hush,  sir/  he  said.  'It  gives 
me  great  joy  to  have  escaped  the  clutches  of  that  savage  and  fierce  master.1 "  The 
Republic  of  Plato,  trans,  by  A.  D.  Lindsay,  London,  J.  M.  Dent,  1923,  p.  3. 


Greece:  The  Great  Age 

.  .  .  and  Eros  (Love),  fairest  among  the  deathless  gods,  who  unnerves  the  limbs 
and  overcomes  the  mind  and  wise  counsels  of  all  gods  and  all  men  with  them  . „  ,25 

Sex,  in  short,  is  a  nuisance,  or  at  best  an  appetite  likely  to  interfere  with  the 
conduct  of  life  according  to  the  Golden  Mean.  This,  be  it  noted,  is  very  dif- 
ferent from  the  attitude  that  sex  is  a  form,  if  not  the  form,  of  original  sin.  We 
cannot  know  whether  most  Greek  gentlemen  agreed  with  the  aged  Sophocles; 
the  guess  is  that  they  did  not.  This  view  of  love  as  a  misfortune  is  almost  cer- 
tainly an  upper-class  intellectual's  view,  a  part  of  that  complex,  and  by  no 
means  wholly  sunny,  ideal  of  the  beautiful-and-good. 

Sex  figures  in  that  ideal  in  a  form  even  stranger  to  us,  a  form  that  has 
greatly  disturbed  modern  lovers  of  Greece.  In  Voltaire's  Dictionnaire  philoso- 
phique  the  topic  is  treated  under  the  heading  "Amour  Socratique,"  a  phrase 
that  at  least  avoids  the  misunderstandings  of  one  like  "Greek  homosexuality." 
The  Greek  warrior-gentleman  and  his  young  man  were  indeed  lovers  in  the 
physical  sense;  of  that  we  should  not  be  led  into  doubt  even  by  the  reluctance 
of  ancient  authors  to  approach  clinical  details,  nor  by  the  idealization  with 
which  Socrates,  as  reported  by  Xenophon  as  well  as  by  Plato,  surrounds  the 
relation.  But  it  was  not  the  furtive  homosexuality  of  an  unfortunate  few  born 
into  abnormality,  and,  above  all,  it  was  not  usually  a  homosexual  relation  in 
which  one  of  the  partners  assumed  a  female  or  passive  role.  Both  the  younger 
man  and  the  older  were  assumed  to  play  psychologically  a  masculine,  and, 
therefore,  noble,  role,  the  older  man  essentially  teaching  the  younger,  preparing 
him  for  his  future  part  in  this  world  of  heroes,  fighters,  competitors,  men, 
still  in  so  many  ways  of  the  spirit  of  the  world  of  Homer.26 

The  sociologist  can  hardly  avoid  seeing  in  Greek  pederasty  a  by  no  means 
unprecedented  form  of  a  relation  common  among  warriors.  At  the  simplest 
level,  sexual  relations  among  males  are  supposedly  common  where  there  are 
no  females  available,  notably  among  sailors  in  the  days  of  long  voyages.  No 
such  complete  isolation  existed  among  the  early  Greeks,  but  with  them  war- 
fare was  endemic  and  seasonal,  and  it  did  involve  long  periods  in  camp  and  in 
sieges  and  expeditions  where  women  were  not  accessible.  Some  have  main- 
tained that  the  Greek  relegation  of  women  to  housekeeping  and  childbearing, 

25  Hesiod,  The  Creation,  quoted  in  W.  H.  Auden,  The  Portable  Greek  Reader,  New 
York,  Viking,  1948,  p.  52. 

26  The  whole  subject  is  treated  with  masterly  compression  and  full  command  of  ther 
sources — and  with  a  quite  mid-twentieth-century  attitude — in  Marrou,  A  History  oj 
Education  in  Antiquity,  Chap,  m,  entitled  "Pederasty  in  Classical  Education."  M.  Mar- 
rou even  permits  himself  the  statement  that  "paideia  found  its  realization  in  paider- 
asteia"  a  statement  a  bit  too  sweeping  and  a  bit  too  clever,  but  basically  accurate. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

the  semi-Oriental  exclusion  they  suffered,  was  itself  the  "cause"  both  of 
pederasty  and  of  the  growth  of  that  very  Athenian  form  of  professional  female 
prostitution  to  which  Demosthenes  refers,  the  hetairai  ("mistresses")  who 
bring  pleasure  because  they  are  bright  and  attractive.  The  Greek  gentleman, 
in  this  notion,  turned  to  boys  and  hetairai  since  his  wife,  because  of  her  faulty 
upbringing,  could  not  keep  up  with  him  in  conversation.  This  seems  a  some- 
what overintellectualized  reason.  In  fact,  the  actual  situation  among  the  Greek 
gentlemen  of  the  Great  Age  seems  to  be  an  admirable  example  of  the  inter- 
action of  mutually  dependent  variables.  The  warrior-established  relation 
worked  to  increase  the  undesirability  of  the  wife;  the  wife's  relegation  and, 
presumably,  resignation  worked  to  increase  the  desirability  of  the  young  male 
beloved,  the  eromenos. 

Greek  pederasty,  however,  got  well  beyond  the  sociology  of  the  family  and 
into  the  sociology  of  knowledge,  if  not  rather  into  the  sociology  of  religion, 
for  in  the  Great  Age  V amour  socratique  became  a  means  of  symbolizing, 
turning  into  a  faith,  an  ideal,  the  act  and  fact  of  love.  The  pederast  became  the 
seeker,  the  transcendentalist,  the  mystic,  soaring  far  above  the  gentlemanly 
limits  of  the  beautiful-and-good.  No  doubt  with  most  of  these  pairs  of  lovers 
the  relation  was  one  in  which  this  earth  was  no  more  than  decently,  moder- 
ately, briefly,  left  for  a  better  one,  as  when  we  are  moved  to  hope  for  better 
things.  The  older  man  and  the  younger  were  partners  in  an  effort  to  rise  above, 
but  not  too  far  above,  the  common-sense  acceptance  of  an  untranscended 
world  that  does  play  an  essential  part  in  the  beautiful-and-good.  Certainly, 
generations  of  commentators  have  tried  to  show  that  Socrates  himself,  and 
even  his  rapporteur  Plato,  meant  by  "Eros"  in  those  famous  dialogues  that 
deal  with  love  nothing  really  Faustian,  northern,  and  indecently,  wildly  mys- 
tical, but  no  more  than  "the  joint  attainment  by  lover  and  beloved  of  self-mas- 
tery."27 It  remains  true  that  for  the  small  group  of  aristocrats  who  practiced 
it,  this  love  became  what  conventional  love  between  men  and  women  did 
not  become  in  the  Great  Age,  a  subject  for  poet  and  philosopher,  an  inspira- 
tion for  the  artist — many  of  the  Athenian  vases  are  dedicated  to  a  male  lover 
— no  mere  habit,  however  pleasant,  but  a  goal.  Whether  that  goal  was,  in  fact, 

5TThe  phrase  is  from  Denis  de  Rougemont,  Love  in  the  Western  World,  trans,  by 
Montgomery  Belgion,  New  York,  Pantheon,  1956,  p.  61,  note.  M.  de  Rougemont 
compresses  in  a  brief  note  this  contention  that  in  the  Phaedrus  and  in  the  Sym- 
posium Socrates  is  putting  a  bridle  on  Eros,  not  applying  the  spur.  He  adds,  what  most 
commentators  would  accept,  I  suppose,  that  whatever  Socrates-Plato  may  have  meant 
originally,  subsequent  interpreters  have  made  the  Eros  of  the  dialogues  into  "bound- 
less desire,"  that  is,  something  transcendental,  romantic,  "Faustian." 


Greece:  The  Great  Age 

a  "romantic"  one — that  is,  an  unattainable  goal — is  a  question  that  canno 
be  firmly  answered.  Even  here,  however,  one  must  doubt  that  the  Greek  of  th 
Great  Age  could  ever  quite  sympathize  with  Shelley's 

....  where  we  taste 
The  pleasures  of  believing  what  we  see 
Is  boundless,  as  we  wish  our  souls  to  be.28 


With  Socrates  we  have  come  to  that  body  of  writings  that  for  so  many  gen 
erations  has  stood  for  the  greatness  of  the  Greeks.  There  is  no  need,  perhaps 
to  repeat  here  warnings  against  assuming  that  even  so  varied  and  wide-rangin; 
a  body  of  writing  as  what  we  may  call  the  Greek  canon  tells  the  historian  o 
morals  all  he  wants  to  know  about  the  Greeks  of  the  Great  Age.  But  it  doe 
tell  us  a  great  deal,  and  especially  for  Athens,  where  we  know  the  many  wen 
at  least  attracted  by  the  standards  of  the  few,  it  does  not  leave  us  wholly  ii 
the  dark  even  about  the  moral  attitudes  of  the  average  man. 

The  canon  is  varied  and  inclusive.  There  is,  first  of  all,  the  not  very  forma 
theogony  of  the  Olympians,  the  gods  themselves,  not  yet  as  much  embroi 
dered  as  it  was  to  be  in  the  Greco-Roman  world.  Then  there  are  the  tale 
of  the  mortals  of  old,  who  had  commerce  with  the  gods,  and  who  sometime! 
from  heroes  became  gods;  these  are  the  tales,  the  "myths,"  of  which  th< 
tragedies  of  the  Great  Age  are  made.  Then,  woven  of  the  same  stuff,  but  j 
very  different  thing  in  the  end,  there  are  the  "mystery  cults"  of  Dionysus  anc 
of  Demeter,  religious  beliefs  in  which  a  modern  Westerner  can  recognize  i 
communion,  an  emotional  experience  he  has  difficulty  recognizing  in  th< 
formal  Olympian  faith.  Finally,  there  is  already  by  300  B.C.  a  very  substantia 
body  of  what  might  be  called  "lay"  literature,  philosophy,  lyric  and  gnomi< 
poetry,  history,  even  the  Old  Comedy,  in  some  of  which  the  gods  and  heroe; 
are  treated  in  a  skeptical  and  realistic  temper  that  can  hardly  be  classified  a 
in  any  sense  one  of  the  varieties  of  religious  experience. 

As  to  the  formal  Olympian  faith,  I  need  add  little  to  what  I  have  sai< 
above  (p.  62ff.) .  The  gods  are  indeed  in  a  sense  and  in  part  like  mortals,  sav< 
for  their  power  and  their  immortality.  The  believer  does  negotiate  with  them 
make  a  contract  with  them,  he  does  not  seem  to  pray,  to  worship,  as  we  un 
derstand  those  words.  Yet  it  must  be  said  emphatically  that  there  is  no  goo< 
evidence  that  the  Greek  in  the  street,  as  long  as  he  believed  in  them  at  all,  eve 
felt  that  what  the  gods  are  permitted  to  do  he  was  permitted  to  do.  The  Gree] 

28  Shelley,  "Julian  and  Maddalo,"  line  15. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

moral  code — the  usual  code  that  condemns  dishonesty,  greed,  adultery,  that 
backs  up  law  codes — does  not  come  directly  from  Olympus  as  the  Hebrew 
code  comes  from  God  on  Sinai;  but  there  is  such  a  code,  a  part  of  the  nature 
of  things,  in  a  sense  antedating  the  Olympians,  even  superior  to  them.  The 
Olympians  themselves  may  often  violate  it  with  impunity,  especially  in  such 
matters  as  adultery,  much,  perhaps,  as  the  conspicuous  people  on  earth,  the 
people  whose  doings  history  records,  seem  to  violate  it.  But  for  the  ordinary 
man,  the  gods  themselves  act  as  moral  agents,  their  authority  reinforcing  cus- 
tom and  law.  Even  for  Alcibiades,  imitation  of  the  doings  of  the  Olympians 
is  a  risky  piece  of  hubris;  for  the  plain  man,  it  is  unthinkable.  This  attitude  is 
a  difficult  one  for  contemporary  American  intellectuals  in  particular  to  under- 
stand; it  is  probably  much  easier  for  John  Doe,  reading  in  his  tabloid  about 
the  goings  on  of  "cafe  society,"  to  understand. 

It  must  be  noted  that  the  leaders  of  Greek  thought  had  long  anticipated 
the  Christian  complaint  to  come;  a  Zeus  who  conducts  himself  as  immorally  as 
does  the  Zeus  of  the  Olympian  faith  cannot  be  a  good  god,  and,  therefore,  can- 
not be  a  god  at  all.  Either  Zeus  lives  up  to  the  best  that  has  been  thought  and 
said  here  on  earth  or  he  does  not  exist.  Plato  has  Socrates  say  something  like 
this  often,  and  had  clearly  arrived  himself  at  an  idealistic  monotheism  that 
really  dismisses  the  whole  Olympian  theogony  and  most  of  Greek  "mythology" 
as  unprofitable  and  often  downright  wicked  storytelling.  Euripides,  too,  often 
criticizes  the  view  of  the  Olympians  we  have  attributed  to  the  man  in  the 
street.29  Here,  in  fact,  would  seem  to  be  the  beginnings  of  an  important  and 
never  really  greatly  narrowed  gap  between  what  the  educated,  the  ruling 
classes  as  well  as  the  pure  intellectuals,  of  the  Greco-Roman  world  made  of 
the  formal,  organized  religion  of  their  society  and  what  the  masses  made  of  it. 
This  was  the  gap  through  which  Christianity  and  its  great  rivals,  Mithraism, 
the  cult  of  Isis,  and  the'  like,  were  to  enter  Western  society. 

The  gap  was  in  the  Great  Age  only  partially  filled  by  the  mystery  cults. 
Our  sources  for  understanding  the  nature  of  these  cults,  and  in  particular  for 
understanding  their  effect  on  the  morals  of  the  masses,  are,  of  course,  defec- 
tive. For  one  thing,  they  were  cults  about  which  their  initiates  were  sworn  to 
secrecy;  for  another,  the  intellectuals  who  made  and  transmitted  the  great 
tradition  of  the  beautiful-and-good  were  apparently  rather  ashamed  of  the 
emotional  abandon  of  these  rites.  Even  Euripides,  whose  Bacchae  is  the 

29  For  Socrates-Plato,  the  last  few  pages  of  Book  H  of  the  Republic  will  do  as  an 
example.  Note  that  Jowett  regularly  translated  6e6s  as  God  with  a  capital  letter.  For 
Euripides,  see  the  Iphigenia  in  Tauris,  line  391. 


Greece:  The  Great  Age 

fullest  great  literary  source  for  the  worship  of  Dionysus,  can  hardly  be  said 
to  approach  the  subject  in  the  frame  of  mind  of  the  calm  observer.  Neverthe- 
less, thanks  to  the  labors  of  generations  of  scholars,  we  can  be  quite  sure  of 
the  most  important  facts  about  the  mystery  cults.  The  worshiper  took  part  in 
a  sacrament  by  means  of  which  he  communed  directly  with  a  god,  indeed 
became  through  theophagy  a  part  of  a  god,  and  hence  immortal.  In  both 
Demeter  and  Dionysus  there  lives  the  old  Western  belief  in  an  earth-god  or 
-goddess  who  dies  and  is  born  again.  At  the  height  of  the  ritual  the  worshipers 
underwent  an  experience  that  exalted  them  into  the  kind  of  mystic  transport 
which,  whether  it  be  violent  frenzy  or  quiet  rapture,  is  quite  unintelligible,  if 
not  indecent,  to  the  rationalist  temperament.30 

.  As  to  the  moral  consequences  of  participation  in  these  mysteries,  we  have 
no  substantial  evidence.  The  rationalist  is  likely  to  feel  about  them,  as  about 
their  modem  equivalents,  that  they  are  at  best  comparatively  harmless  psy- 
chological outlets  for  needs  the  really  mature  person  ought  not  to  have,  at 
worst  debauches  that  may  lead  to  immoral  conduct.  The  Christian  mystic 
must  feel  that  these  Greek  cults  were  too  much  manifestations  of  mass  feel- 
ings, too  public.  The  American  observer  can  hardly  help  comparing  them  to 
revivalist  camp  meetings,  Holy  Rollerism,  and  suchlike  manifestations  of  com- 
municable excitement.  At  any  rate,  the  cults  in  their  original  form  did  not 
survive  the  rival  excitements  of  all  sorts  of  other  Eastern  cults  in  the  later 
centuries.  Their  very  existence  is,  however,  an  important  and  necessary 
modification  of  the  oversimple  view  of  the  Greeks  of  the  Great  Age  as  univer- 
sally calm  and  dignified  embodiments  of  the  ideal  of  the  Golden  Mean.  The 
Greek  in  the  throes  of  communion  with  Dionysus  could  not  have  looked  much 
like  those  serene  statues  of  the  Parthenon. 

There  are  still  more  exceptions  to  this  textbook  pattern  of  the  Olympians 
and  their  human  followers.  If  the  mystery  cults  suggest  an  emotional  in- 
continence unworthy  of-  the  "classical"  ideal,  the  Sophists,  as  reported  to  us, 
it  is  true  chiefly  by  their  enemy  Socrates-Plato,  are  quite  as  clearly  extremists 
in  another  direction.  Their  famous  "man  is  the  measure  of  all  things"  has  been 
variously  interpreted,  but  it  does  seem  inconsistent  with  deep  religious  feeling. 

so  As  an  example  of  the  difficulties  of  interpretation  that  face  the  historian  interested 
in  human  conduct  and  motivation,  the  dispute  over  the  Eacchae  will  do  very  well. 
Interpretations  range  from  the  view  that  in  this  play  Euripides  is  the  rationalist  show- 
ing by  example  the  horrors  of  religious  intoxication  to  the  view  that  he  is  here  the 
wise  humanist  showing  by  example  the  dangerous  narrowness  of  the  matter-of-fact 
rationalist.  The  play  itself,  duly  and  romantically  translated  by  Gilbert  Murray,  is  of 
major  importance  in  any  scheme  of  "general  education."  See  the  well-known  A.  W. 
Verrall,  Euripides  the  Rationalist,  Cambridge,  Cambridge  University  Press,  1913. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

It  must  be  repeated  that  Socrates  and  his  pupils  may  have  completely  mis- 
represented Protagoras  and  his.  I  should  guess  it  much  more  likely  that  these 
Sophists  were  in  fact  the  first  large  and  well-developed  group  of  the  kind 
most  familiar  to  us  in  the  philosophes  of  the  eighteenth  century,  no-nonsense 
rationalists  who  held  that  properly  directed  thinking  could  answer  all  ques- 
tions worth  asking  and  guide  men's  conduct  alike  for  the  individual  and  the 
general  good.  No  doubt  the  individualism  they  taught  could  act  as  a  dis- 
solvent of  old  traditional  morality,  as  Aristophanes  shows  wittily  in  the 
Clouds,  but  they  probably  sincerely  believed,  as  the  philosophes  did,  that  the 
new  rational  morality  would  lead  to  a  better  commonwealth,  not  to  unprin- 
cipled struggle  among  "anarchistic"  and  selfish  individuals. 

On  the  other  hand,  Plato  himself  clearly  goes  beyond  the  limits  set  by 
the  ideals  of  the  beautiful-and-good,  the  Golden  Mean,  the  human  super- 
humanity  of  the  sculptured  Apollos  and  Aphrodites;  or  perhaps  it  would 
be  safe  to  say  merely  that  the  accumulated  weight  of  centuries  of  interpreta- 
tion of  Plato's  writings  pushes  him  over  to  the  side  of  the  mystics,  the  other- 
worldly, the  seekers,  or,  mildest  of  words  here,  the  idealists.  Plotinus  and  the 
other  neoplatonists  in  a  later  age  most  certainly  heightened  Plato's  transcen- 
dental flights — or,  if  you  see  things  this  way,  made  his  nonsense  even  more 
nonsensical.  But  surely  the  Plato  who  in  the  familiar  parable  of  the  cave 
decides  that  the  world  of  human  sense  experience  as  interpreted  by  common 
sense  is  somehow  not  the  "real"  world  belongs  among  William  James's 
"tender-minded,"  not  among  his  "tough-minded."  More  riskily,  perhaps,  one 
may  list  him  as  a  Faustian,  not  as  an  Apollonian.31 

Plato's  metaphysics,  however,  need  interest  us  here  only  as  they  add  to 
the  complexities  of  the  "classic"  view  of  life,  as  they  cast  doubt  on  the  view 
that  the  Greeks  of  the  Great  Age  were  too  gentlemanly  to  display  their  met- 
aphysics. As  a  moralist  he  almost  always  speaks  as  Socrates,  and  here,  too, 
he  presents  us  with  a  problem:  Does  he  deepen  and  widen  the  ideal  of  the 
beautiful-and-good,  but  still  within  the  tradition  of  his  countrymen,  or  does 
he  twist  it  into  an  unearthly,  and  un-Greek,  striving  for  the  annihilation  of  the 
flesh?  His  Socrates  does  arrive  at  the  formula  "Knowledge  is  virtue";  and  this 
formula  was  Greek  enough  so  that  many  of  his  critics  at  the  time  seem  to  have 

31  Aristotle,  who  is  usually  classified  as  more  worldly,  nearer  the  conventional  Greek 
tough-mindedness  than  Plato,  nonetheless  arrives  at  an  ethical  ideal,  theoria,  which 
has  firm  overtones  of  some  kind  of  transcendence  of  this  practical  and  inconvenient 
world,  a  sort  of  quiet,  soulful,  thoroughly  decent  ecstasy,  far  removed  from  Bacchic 
intoxication,  but  still  an  ecstasy,  no  mere  detached  philosophic  calm.  The  more  you 
look  at  these  Greeks,  the  less  they  look  like  the  Elgin  marbles. 


Greece:  The  Great  Age 

confused  him  with  his  opponents  the  Sophists.  But  for  the  Sophists  knowledge 
was  apparently  instrumental,  utilitarian,  "practical"  almost  in  our  modern 
sense;  and  for  the  Socrates  of  Plato  knowledge  was  the  intuitive  appreciation 
of  God's  ordering  of  the  universe,  the  things  his  daimon  told  him  were  true, 
the  things  the  poor  captives  in  the  cave  could  not  really  see  in  their  half-light. 
We  are  almost  at  the  German  distinction  between  Verstand  and  Vernunft — 
the  Sophists  with  their  prudent,  indeed  banausic,  bookkeeper's  reason  (Ver- 
stand), Socrates  with  his  profound  insights  (Vernunjf)  into  a  world  where 
there  are  no  bookkeepers,  and  no  books. 

Plato  does,  especially  in  the  Republic  and  in  the  Laws,  come  down  to 
concrete  cases.  Yet  it  is  precisely  in  these  details  of  what  he  regards  as  the 
good  life,  and  in  the  spirit  behind  them,  that  he  seems  most  clearly  to  deviate 
from  the  Greek,  or  at  least  the  Athenian,  way,  the  way  of  Pericles's  funeral 
speech.  Plato's  Utopia  is,  in  fact,  an  aristocratic  communist  society,  divided 
on  lines  of  caste,  though  not  without  possible  careers  open  to  approved  talent, 
ruled  firmly  by  a  chosen  few,  and  pervaded  by  an  austere  discipline  under 
which  the  ruling  classes,  at  least,  would  appear  to  have  to  give  up  the  very 
Greek  delights  of  poetry,  music,  the  arts  of  living,  even  family,  and  to  have 
to  embrace  poverty,  virtue,  the  higher  life.  There  are  echoes  of  Sparta  and 
a  foresight  of  Christian  monasticism,  the  monasticism  of  the  Teutonic  knights, 
perhaps,  rather  than  that  of  the  Benedictines.32 

The  Athenian  tragedies  of  the  Great  Age  are  no  doubt  a  fairer  reflection  of 
what  the  Athenian  gentleman  thought  about  the  good  life  than  are  the  works 
of  the  great  philosophers.  Yet  here,  too,  there  must  be  a  warning.  Tragedy — 
Greek  tragedy,  at  any  rate — is  loftly,  serious,  dignified.  A  great  deal  of  living, 
even  for  the  best  of  us,  must  be  a  matter  of  routine,  of  trivial  matters,  relieved 
by  absence  of  high  thinking,  if  not  actually  by  lightheartedness.  Still,  the  work 
of  Aeschylus,  Sophocles,  and  Euripides,  supplemented  by  that  of  Thucydides, 
and  even  of  writers  like  Herodotus  and  Xenophon,  can  take  us  intimately 
into  Greek  concern  with  matters  of  high  seriousness.  The  ideals  we  have 
sought  to  summarize  under  such  words  as  the  beautif  ul-and-good,  the  Golden 
Mean,  the  agon,  are  conventional,  loftily  so,  aristocratic,  but  still  a  con- 

32 1  am  aware  that  the  above  is  a  one-sided  interpretation  of  Plato.  He  is,  in  fact,  a 
kind  of  litmus  paper  for  separating  the  "realists"  from  the  "idealists."  (You  may  put 
this  dualism,  which  is,  I  think,  almost  as  clear-cut  as  that  between  sheep  and  goats, 
in  your  favorite  terms.)  Jefferson,  for  instance,  a  realist,  reacted  violently  against 
Plato.  See  his  letter  to  John  Adams,  July  5,  1814,  and  Adams's  reply  July  16,  1814. 
Correspondence  of  John  Adams  and  Thomas  Jefferson,  selected  by  Paul  Wistach, 
Indianapolis,  Bobbs-MerriU,  1925,  p.  107. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

ventional  moral  idea;  and  the  high  philosophic  mysticism  of  Plato,  the  mad- 
ness of  the  mystery  cults,  are  simply  out  of  line.  We  get  a  more  just  sense 
of  what  the  sensitive  Greek  of  the  Great  Age  felt  about  man's  fate  from  Greek 
dramatic  literature. 

This  Greek  came  nearer  the  view  of  the  world  as  a  vale  of  tears  than  many 
later  Hellenists  like  to  admit.  He  had  as  yet  little  of  Job's  final  resignation — 
that  will  come  later  with  the  Stoics,  though  not  by  any  means  in  identical 
form — but  he  was  not  very  far  from  Job's  feeling  that  man  is  born  to  trouble. 
Even  granting  that  tragedy  as  a  literary  genre  has  to  deal  with  somber  mat- 
ters, even  granting  that  the  Greeks  held  that  tragedy,  through  what  Aristotle 
called  "catharsis,"  purged  the  soul  through  pity  and  terror  to  leave  it  filled 
with  courage,  perhaps  even  with  hope,  granting  that  Greek  tragedy  by  no 
means  leaves  in  the  spirit  the  gnawing,  rather  nasty  despair  the  modern 
'^problem  play"  leaves,  it  is  still  true  that,  once  more,  this  is  not  the  sunny, 
ligjhthearted,  untroubled  Greece  of  the  Apollonian  smile.  The  world  of  the 
tragic  poets  is  not  a  world  designed  for  human  happiness;  or,  if  you  prefer, 
man  is,  for  the  tragic  poets,  born  with  a  flaw  that  prevents  his  attaining  the 
happiness  he  wants,  a  flaw  as  real  to  the  sensitive  Greek  as  the  flaw  of 
original  sin  to  the  sensitive  Christian.  This  flaw  is  hubris  (fyfyts),  still  best 
translated  as  pride,  which  is  also  the  great  Christian  sin. 

The  parallel  with  the  Judaeo-Christian  moral  tradition  can  be  carried 
further.  Greek  hubris  is  the  overweening  individual's  rebellion  against  the 
ordering  of  the  universe;  Adam's  sin,  which  is  ours,  is  also  rebellion,  dis- 
obedience. There  are  obvious  and  important  differences,  at  bottom  the  dif- 
ferences between  Prometheus  and  Adam  as  rebels.  Prometheus  is  a  hero,  for 
the  Greek  could  not  quite  believe  his  gods  loved  men;  the  Jew  does  really 
believe  his  God  loves  men.  Not  even  in  Aeschylus,  the  earliest  and  simplest 
of  the  three  great  Greek  dramatists,  is  there  rebellion  against  a  personal  god, 
but  against  an  impersonal  necessity,  and  therefore  a  rebellion  clearly  heroic, 
justified,  perhaps;  and  only  in  Euripides  is  there  a  trace  of  the  complaining 
against  the  rest  of  the  world  that  is  the  mark  of  the  romantic  Ibsen.  Adam 
is  not  in  the  canon  a  hero,  and  the  tradition  hardly  motivates  his  disobedience 
in  ordinary  human  ways;  it  is  just  stupid  sinful  disobedience.  Again,  both 
the  Greek  and  the  Hebrew  traditions  are  rooted  in  early  concepts  of  hereditary 
guilt  Of  the  Greek  house  of  Atreus,  the  dark  tale  of  which  was  a  favorite 
topic  of  classic  tragedy,  the  words  of  the  fourth  commandment  can  certainly 
apply:  visiting  the  iniquity  of  the  fathers  upon  the  children,  upon  the  third 
and  upon  the  fourth  generation. 


Greece:  The  Great  Age 

On  the  moral  base  for  Greek  tragedy,  on  such  problems  as  how  far  neces- 
sity (dvay/o?)  is  a  blind  force  ruling  the  universe  with  no  concern  for  man, 
how  far  hubris  itself  in  a  man  is  the  product  of  his  own  free  will,  of  his  blind- 
ness to  the  warnings  from  the  gods,  to  the  "facts  of  life,"  how  near  to  our  own 
conceptions  of  guilt  that  of  the  tragic  poets  is,  are  questions  on  which  genera- 
tions of  interpreters  have  not  agreed.  To  us,  at  least  at  first  glance,  Oedipus, 
who  killed  his  father  and  married  his  mother  all  unknowing,  seems  a  victim 
of  mere  accident.  He  did  kill  a  stranger  in  a  crossroad  row,  which  can  seem 
to  us  as  crudely  motivated  as  a  fight  in  a  movie  Western.  But  this  scuffle  it- 
self is  an  example  of  the  normal  violence  of  Greek  life,  a  violence  I  have  al- 
ready noted  (see  p.  87);  it  seems  to  me  difficult  to  read  into  Sophocles's 
text  any  idea  that  this  initial  act  of  violence  by  Oedipus  is,  in  fact,  the  act 
of  hubris,  the  beginning  of  the  stain.  It  is  perhaps  fairer  to  say  that  Oedipus's 
whole  career,  up  to  the  point  where  fate  overtakes  him,  seems  to  have  been 
the  career  of  a  fortunate  but  insensitive  man,  a  career  open  to  talents  not 
quite  tuned  to  the  subtleties  of  the  beautiful-and-good,  a  tragic  career  at 
once  guilty  and  innocent. 

However  you  interpret  these  tragedies,  and  the  complex  of  tales  out  of 
which  they  are  built,  you  can  hardly  deny  that  they  display  men  struggling 
against  something  not  men,  something  hostile  or  indifferent  to  men,  yet 
something  that  has  to  be  reckoned  with,  adjusted  to,  in  the  kind  of  tension 
we  call  "morality."  That  morality  is  not  an  easy,  "natural,"  "immanent" 
thing,  the  true  human  nature,  to  be  contrasted  with  the  harsh  and  unnatural 
dictated  code  of  a  Jehovah.  Necessity  seems  often  to  be  as  harsh  and  distant 
a  master  of  man  as  any  ever  have  conceived.  Only  slowly,  and  surely  only 
among  an  intellectual  elite  of  a  somewhat  later  age,  does  the  full  force  of 
the  Heraclitean  fragment  come  home:  character  as  fate.  This  was  perhaps 
the  final  lesson  of  Greek  tragedy.  These  Greeks  by  no  means  saw  and  felt 
the  universe  as  did  the  optimistic  enlightened  of  the  eighteenth  century,  our 
own  closest  spiritual  fathers. 

*  One  major  element  in  the  moral  history  of  the  Greeks  remains  to  be 
noted:  their  civic  morality,  their  feelings  about  the  relation  of  the  individual 
to  the  polis.  Here  there  is  no  need  to  question  the  accepted  verdict  that 
the  Greeks,  who  made  the  word  "democracy,"  also  made  the  thing.  The 
spotted  reality  was,  of  course,  quite  different  from  the  ideal  as  set  in  the 
funeral  speech  of  Pericles  or  in  the  writings  of  modern  romantic  philhellenes. 
There  is  no  need  to  bring  up  the  slavery,  the  coups  d'etat,  the  horrible  in- 
ternecine wars  among  the  poleis;  nor  is  there  need  to  insist  that  democracy 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

s  not  invented  by,  say,  a  Solon  or  a  Cleisthenes  much  as  an  Edison  in- 
ited  the  phonograph.  Spartan  democracy — for  among  the  Spartiates 
mselves  there  was  a  kind  of  democracy — still  looks  a  good  deal  like  the 
I  tribal  war  council  out  of  which  it  developed.  But  Athens  about  400  B.C. 
>ks  modern  indeed,  in  spite  of  slavery,  a  society  of  great  freedom  of  dis- 
ision,  of  party  rivalry,  of  decisions  made  by  some  kind  of  balancing,  and 
preat  deal  of  talking,  among  conflicting  interest  groups. 
Of  the  individual — the  free  adult  male  individual — in  such  a  society,  we 
ist  note,  first  of  all,  that  he  was  a  "citizen,"  a  word  one  would  hardly  use 
a  Jew,  an  Egyptian,  an  Assyrian.  He  felt,  if  he  were  a  good  citizen,  strong 
ligations  toward  the  society;  he  was  a  citizen-soldier,  and  a  taxpayer,  and 
roter;  he  took  full  part  in  politics,  not  always  a  very  "moral"  part.  Above 
,  he  did  feel  that  in  his  relations  with  the  agents  of  his  society — its  "govern- 
>nt" — he  was  no  slave,  no  subject,  not  even  an  obedient  product  of  social 
aditioning  (these  last  terms  would  have  been  wholly  incomprehensible  to 
n).  He  felt  that  in  obeying  the  laws  he  was  obeying  himself.  I  am  aware 
it  these  are  idealistic  terms,  and  I  by  no  means  believe  that  the  Athenian 
the  street  went  through  a  process  of  thinking  out  high  philosophical  prob- 
ns  like  this  in  the  manner  of  Rousseau's  Contrat  social.  But  he  felt  some- 
ng  of  the  sort,  and  we  have  ample  evidence  of  it.  Here  is  a  small  but  sig- 
icant  fragment:  Simonides's  epitaph  on  the  Spartan  dead  at  Thermopylae 
usually  translated  as  "We  lie  here,  having  obeyed  their  [the  Spartan  lawful 
ers]  commands,"  but  the  word  7rei0oju,evot  is  the  passive  of  the  verb  best 
instated  "persuade,"  and  the  passage  is  literally  close  to  "having  been  per- 
aded  to  comply  with  their  commands."  Again,  there  is  a  famous  passage  in 
arodotus,  often  quoted  by  lovers  of  Greece.  Demaratus,  exiled  Spartan  king, 
at  the  court  of  the  invading  Persian  despot  Xerxes;  he  is  there,  be  it  noted, 
a  result  of  one  of  those  rough  political  adjustments,  well  short  of  the  best 
•Meal  morality,  that  occur  in  the  practice  of  Greek  democracy,  and  is,  in 
:t,  a  traitor.  But  when  Xerxes  doubts  that  the  tiny  Spartan  group  will  fight 
3  host,  doubts  that  they  will  fight  against  such  odds  even  if  they  were  on  his 
le,  and  threatened  with  the  whip,  Damaratus  replies: 

likewise  the  Lacedaemonians,  when  they  fight  singly,  are  as  good  men  as  any 
the  world,  and  when  they  fight  in  a  body,  are  the  bravest  of  all.  For  though  they 
freemen,  they  are  not  in  all  respects  free;  law  is  the  master  whom  they  own; 
I  this  master  they  fear  more  than  thy  subjects  fear  thee.  Whatever  he  commands 
y  do;  and  his  commandment  is  always  the  same:  it  forbids  them  to  flee  in 


Greece:  The  Great  Age 

battle,  whatever  the  number  of  their  foes,  and  requires  them  to  stand  firm,  and 
either  conquer  or  die.  .  .  ,33 

The  Greek  would  have  fully  understood  Henry  de  Bracton's  phrase  nan 
sub  homine,  sed  sub  Deo  et  sub  lege,  a  government  of  laws,  not  of  men.  Once 
more,  the  tough-minded  cynic  can  insist  that  law  is  simply  what  men  have 
made,  and  are  making,  it,  but  he  misses  the  point  that  is  clear  in  the  moral 
logic  of  the  sentiments.  The  Antigone  of  Sophocles  is  here  the  locus  classicus. 
Antigone  resists  Creon,  himself  as  king  a  legitimate  source  of  commands, 
because  his  command  that  her  brother,  for  willful,  and  unsuccessful,  rebel- 
lion, be  buried  without  proper  funeral  rites  is  to  her  an  arbitrary  act,  an 
act  contrary  to  religion,  an  act  he  had  no  "right"  to  command.  Here,  surely, 
is  the  essence  of  the  moral  history  of  the  West,  perhaps  of  mankind:  this  is 
the  Promethean  gesture  of  human  defiance  of  not-man  in  the  guise  of  other- 
man,  conscience  asserting  that  higher  and  lower  for  the  moralist  are  not 
what  they  are  for  the  physicist;  this  is  Luther's  ich  kann  nicht  anders.  Is  this 
perhaps  hubris,  a  sin  become  a  virtue,  the  final  victory  of  Dionysus  over 

Greek  moral  life,  like  all  moral  life,  was  not  perpetually  keyed  to  the 
intensity  of  tragic  poetry.  Indeed,  through  all  Greek  history  to  the  present 
there  runs  a  sly  little  thread  of  a  most  pedestrian,  if  not  immoral,  dye.  From 
Odysseus  on  through  the  clever  and  handsome  young  men  of  Athens,  the 
brilliant  sophistic  manipulators  of  the  new  logic,  the  exiled  traitors,  the 
Graeculus  esuriens  of  Juvenal,  on  to  the  traditional  Levantine — a  word  no 
one  now  dare  use — of  the  nineteenth  century,  the  Greeks  have  had  a  reputa- 
tion for  untrustworthy  sharpness.  No  doubt  the  Roman  and  the  British  ex- 
amples are  "race  prejudice,"  the  lion's  eternal  contempt  for  the  fox.  But  the 
tradition,  the  reputation,  are  there,  in  their  way,  facts  also. 

Yet  the  sum  total  of  what  the  Homeric  Greeks  and  their  successors  of 
the  Great  Age  of  the  poleis  have  meant  to  us  for  two  millenniums  is  over- 
whelmingly on  the  side  of  sweetness  and  light,  on  the  side  of  the  good,  not 
the  bad.  The  beautiful-and-good,  the  Golden  Mean,  the  agon,  hubris,  Neces- 
sity, arete,  democracy,  above  all,  perhaps,  the  effort  to  state  clearly  what  these 
concepts  mean  in  the  daily  round  of  life,  the  effort  to  set  up  communicable 
standards  of  human  nature,  the  effort  to  think  about  man's  fate,  at  bottom  to 
alter  man's  fate,  all  this  we  owe  the  Greeks.  To  them,  more  surely  than  to 
that  other  source  of  our  moral  traditions,  the  Jews,  for  whom  God  was  much 

33  The  History  of  Herodotus,  trans,  by  George  Rawlinson,  New  York,  Tudor  Publish- 
ing Co.,  1928,  pp.  387-388. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

too  invested  with  earthly  concreteness  to  arouse  worry  over  transcendence 
or  "idealism,"  we  owe  the  characteristic  Western  tension  between  acceptance 
of  the  world  of  the  senses  and  transcendence  of  such  a  world,  between  con- 
formity and  rebellion,  between — but  the  polar  dualisms  could  fill  pages.  The 
Greeks  by  no  means  established  a  fine,  healthy,  normal  middle  way  in  all 
these  tensions.  But  they  did  experience  them  all,  and  have  left  us  an  extraor- 
dinary record  of  their  experience.  Above  all,  they  sought  at  the  height  of  their 
cultural  blossoming  to  combine  the  two  excellences — the  two  great  prides, 
the  two  great  snobberies,  if  you  are  Christian  enough,  or  democrat  enough, 
to  want  to  put  it  thus — of  the  warrior  and  the  priest,  the  athlete  of  the  body 
and  the  athlete  of  the  soul.  They  did  not  wholly  succeed  in  combining  these 
excellences;  what  success  they  had  did  not  last  long.  But  they  have  drawn 
from  this  attempt  their  haunting  hold  on  the  imagination  of  the  West. 

Yet  perhaps  we  should  be  most  grateful  to  these  Greeks  for  the  fascinat- 
ing, complex,  almost  always  clearly  and  beautifully  expressed  account  of 
the  varieties  of  human  experience  we  have  in  their  theogony,  their  mythology, 
their  literature,  art,  and  philosophy.  Looked  at  as  no  more  than  a  great  clini- 
cal record  of  human  conduct  under  the  spur  of  human  hopes  and  aspirations, 
this  record  of  Greek  achievement  is  invaluable.  It  is  complete,  finished,  and 
yet  never-ending.  Even  if  it  is  no  more  than  a  clinical  record,  that  record 
is  ours,  still. 


The  Greco-Roman  World 

IT  WAS  THE  ROMANS  who  put  an  end  to  the  wars  among  the  Greek  city-states 
and  who  finally  united  all  the  Mediterranean  world.  It  is  through  the  Roman 
Western  world  that  the  cultural  inheritance  of  the  Greeks  came  to  our  West 
European  ancestors,  at  least  until  with  the  Renaissance  men  tried  to  get 
back  directly  to  the  work  of  the  Greeks  themselves.  We  cannot,  in  fact,  get 
away  from  that  awkward  hyphen;  what  we  have  is  Greco-Roman.  The 
Roman  component  is  a  major  one. 

For  several  centuries  after  the  legendary  date  of  the  founding  of  the 
city,  753  B.C.,  the  little  agrarian  and  trading  city-state  on  the  Tiber  grew 
slowly  in  the  obscurity  of  its  remoteness  from  the  then  Greek  center  of  the 
Western  stage.  The  Roman  ruling  classes  were  later  to  become  very  conscious 
of  their  place  in  the  now  widened  world,  and  of  their  need  for  a  Homeric 
past.  They  had  their  own  religion,  their  own  "mythology,"  their  own  political, 
legal,  and  moral  traditions,  but  they  hardly  had  a  true  "heroic  age,"  or,  if 
they  did,  it  is  lost  forever  to  men's  memories.  We  can,  with  the  help  of 
archaeology,  work  our  way  through  the  prose  lays  of  ancient  Rome  that 
Livy  left  us,  the  noble,  moving,  but  very  self-conscious,  epic  past  that  Vergil 
gave  his  countrymen,  the  Tocquevillean  study  that  the  Greek  Polybius  made  of 
his  strange  captors,  and  a  great  deal  of  miscellaneous  materials,  laws,  formal 
records,  and  the  like,  to  some  firm  notions  of  the  moral  and  psychological 
base  from  which  the  Romans  started. 

It  was  a  solid  base  indeed.  The  old  Romans  were  a  people  of  steady 
habits,  disciplined,  good  citizen-soldiers,  distrustful  of  the  arts  of  the  intellect, 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

hard-working,  and — the  cant  term  will  not  be  kept  down — "practical."  They 
have  something  in  common,  in  terms  of  social  morality,  with  all  peoples 
known  for  their  cohesiveness,  their  devotion  to  routine  and  discipline,  the 
piety  of  their  religious  practices — not,  be  it  noted,  for  the  intensity  of  their 
religious  emotions — for  their  firm  attitude  of  no  damned  nonsense — in  short, 
for  their  apparently  successful  and  unneurotic  suppression  of  much  we  today 
think  of  as  essential  to  the  human  lot.  The  Romans  have  something,  at  least, 
in  common  with  the  early  Jews,  with  the  Spartans,  with  those  children  of 
Calvin  and  a  stony  soil,  the  Scots  and  the  early  New  Englanders. 

Here  at  the  very  start  we  encounter  in  the  concrete  a  factor  of  great 
importance  in  any  account  of  what  the  Romans  have  meant  to  the  world: 
their  persistent,  direct  borrowings  from  the  Greeks,  who  attained  the  prestige 
of  cultural  ripeness  several  centuries  ahead  of  the  Romans,  and  toward  whom 
educated  Romans  even  into  the  late  Empire  always  had  most  mixed  feelings 
of  admiration,  envy,  distrust,  and  contempt.1  The  Romans  had  a  polytheistic 
religion  of  their  own,  though  no  doubt  built  up  from  many  sources  in  their 
distant  Indo-European  past  and  from  borrowings  from  the  Etruscans,  with 
named  gods  and  goddesses  of  specific  attributes.  The  early  Roman,  how- 
ever, seems  to  have  had  a  fairly  simple  and  even  dull  pantheon.  When  their 
intellectuals  ran  up  against  the  dazzling  Olympian  pantheon  of  the  Greeks, 
they  did  their  best  to  fit  the  two  together.  Mercury  and  Hermes,  Venus  and 
Aphrodite,  and  the  rest  were  paired,  and  gradually  the  whole  body  of  Greek 
theogony,  myth,  and  fable  took  over  and  swamped  the  Roman. 

It  is  likely,  however,  that  for  the  early  Romans  the  major  gods  of  their 
pantheon  were  less  important  than  the  host  of  intimate  gods  and  goddesses  of 
the  hearth,  the  bed,  the  field,  the  market  place.  To  the  Roman,  as  Polybius 
pointed  out,  religion  meant  a  sober,  steadying,  ritual  approach  to  the  tasks  of 
living  in  a  world  in  which  a  man  always  needed  steadying,  always  needed  to 
feel  that  the  nonhuman  could  be  brought  to  help  him,  or  at  least  to  be  less 
hostile.  This  Roman  faith  is  indeed — and  the  phrase  is  Latin — a  religion  of 
do  ut  des.  But  the  warning  we  have  made  already  in  noting  that  many  prim- 
itive polytheisms — and  even  monotheisms  like  the  early  Jewish  worship  of 
the  tribal  Jehovah — bring  man  and  god  together  in  a  contractual  relationship 
needs  to  be  repeated  here.  The  very  word  "contractual,"  the  whole  attempt 
to  state  the  relation  in  our  modern  languages,  especially  since  the  eighteenth- 
century  Enlightenment,  distorts  and  falsifies  the  moral  facts  of  the  relation. 

1  Juvenal's  Third  Satire  (see  above,  p.   19)   is  here  the  locus  classicus,  especially 
lines  58-125. 


The  Greco-Roman  World 

The  early  Roman  who  did  his  duties  to  the  gods,  who  displayed  pietas,  was 
in  a  state  of  mind  and  heart  equally  far  from  a  man  making  a  business  trans- 
action and  from  a  man  "going  through  the  motions."  He  was  trying  to  do 
what  he  "ought"  to  do  as  a  moral  agent,  trying  to  adjust,  or,  better,  to  mold 
his  conduct  to  the  scheme  of  things  cosmic  his  faith  outlined  for  him.  Now 
"mold,"  unlike,  say,  the  contractual  term  "adjust,"  does  suggest  the  disci- 
plined, moderate,  obedient  citizen-soldier  the  Roman  was;  it  does  not,  of 
course,  suggest  the  self-abnegation  of  the  mystic,  which  the  Roman  was  not. 
"Contract"  also  connotes  for  us  something  like  a  relation  between  equals. 
But  no  pious  Roman  could  ever  feel  himself  an  equal  even  in  his  relation  with 
his  household  gods.  The  steady  moral  ways  of  the  Romans  of  the  Republic 
were  sanctioned  by  commands  from  above.  Again,  though  we  can  find  in 
these  early  years  little  sign  of  the  humble  contrition  of  a  believer  overwhelmed 
by  the  feeling  still  conveyed  to  us  in  the  Judaeo-Christian  tradition  by  the 
word  "sin,"  we  can  be  sure  that  the  Roman  knew  that  if  he  did  wrong  he 
would  be  punished,  punished  in  an  afterlife.  Polybius,  who  lived  at  just  the 
time  the  educated  Romans  were  cutting  themselves  free,  very  free,  from  the 
restraints  of  the  old-time  religion,  remarked: 

For  this  reason  I  think,  not  that  the  ancients  acted  rashly  and  at  haphazard  in 
introducing  among  the  people  notions  concerning  the  gods  and  beliefs  in  the  ter- 
rors of  hell,  but  that  the  moderns  are  most  rash  and  foolish  in  banishing  such 

Indeed,  it  should  be  noted  at  this  point  that  the  accepted  notion  that  the 
formal  religion  of  the  Greeks  and  Romans  had  very  little  place  for  the  doc- 
trines of  the  immortality  of  the  soul  and  of  judgment  after  death  needs  some 
qualifying.  Our  tradition  makes  too  much  of  the  famous  passage  in  the 
Odyssey  in  which  Achilles  complains  of  the  dullness  of  the  afterlife;  Dante's 
hell  and  even  his  paradise  are  a  good  deal  sharper.  But  the  fact  is  that  the 
immortality  of  the  soul  had  a  definite  place  in  the  Olympian  faith,  and  one 
that  should  not  be  minimized.  We  may  reasonably  believe  that  for  the  ordi- 
nary man,  even  down  into  the  end  of  the  pagan  culture,  the  kind  of  moral 
sanction  such  a  belief  carries  with  it  does  exist.  Even  for  the  literary,  there  is 
a  kind  of  wistful  reality  in  the  other  world.  In  a  famous  passage  in  the  Aeneid, 
Vergil  describes  the  crowd  coming  to  Charon's  ferry,  perhaps  not  as  if  he 
really  saw  the  shades,  but  at  least  in  an  elegiac,  not  in  a  rationalist  and 
rejecting,  mood: 

2  Polybius,  The  Histories,  trans,  by  W.  R.  Paton,  London,  Heinemann,  1923,  Loeb 
Classical  Library,  Book  VI,  §56: 12. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

To  the  bank  come  thronging 
Mothers  and  men,  bodies  of  great-souled  heroes, 
Their  life-time  over,  boys,  unwedded  maidens, 
Young  men  whose  fathers  saw  their  pyres  burning, 
Thick  as  the  forest  leaves  that  fall  in  autumn 
With  early  frost,  thick  as  the  birds  to  landfall 
From  over  the  seas,  when  the  chill  of  the  year  compels  them 
To  sunlight.  There  they  stand,  a  host,  imploring 
To  be  taken  over  first.3 

We  cannot  make  explicit  and  symbolic  the  ethical  ideal  of  these  Romans 
of  the  first  centuries  of  the  Republic;  we  cannot  quite  set  up  the  equivalent  of 
the  Homeric  hero,  the  Periclean  beautiful-and-good.  But  we  can  get  hints 
of  what  the  Roman  gentleman — the  word  is  not  perfect,  but  it  will  have  to  do, 
for  it  is  better  than  "noble" — thought  proper  and  admirable.  Livy  unques- 
tionably was  writing  deliberately  to  encourage  old-fashioned  virtues  that  he 
thought,  quite  correctly,  were  dying  out  among  the  Roman  ruling  classes  of 
the  Augustan  Age.  Still,  the  tales  he  records,  or  perhaps  even  invents,  are 
almost  certainly  "genuine"  in  the  sense  that  tales  like  those  of  Alfred  and  the 
cakes,  Bruce  and  the  spider,  even  that  of  Washington  and  the  cherry  tree  are 
genuine  parts  of  a  national  tradition.  These  Roman  tales  emphasize  courage 
against  odds,  soldierly  obedience,  individual  heroism,  simplicity  of  manners, 
gravitas,  dignity,  high  seriousness,  and  pietas,  loyal,  respectful  feelings  to- 
ward the  established  moral  order;  here  are  Horatius  at  the  bridge,  Lucretia's 
chastity,  the  patriotism  of  her  avengers,  the  Iroquoian  fortitude  of  Mucius 
Scaevola,  Qncinnatus  at  the  plow;  all  the  long  list  makes  for  a  firm,  even 
rigid,  sense  of  moral  obligation.  Sparta,  of  course,  comes  to  mind,  but  there 
is  here  a  note  by  no  means  so  clearly  sounded  in  Sparta,  a  note  of  straight- 
forward honesty,  of  piety  in  the  old  Roman  sense.  If  you  read  together  the 
early  books  of  Livy  and  the  Lycurgus  of  Plutarch  and  some  Spartan  speeches 
in  Thucydides,  you  will  feel  at  once  a  difference  in  the  moral  tones  of  early 
Rome  and  Sparta. 

Moreover,  the  Romans  had  a  very  different  attitude  toward  the  uses  of 
the  human  mind  than  had  the  Spartans.  This  fact,  indeed,  might  be  deduced 
— if  the  historian  dare  indulge  in  deduction — from  the  given  fact  of  Roman 
success  in  creating  the  One  World  of  their  empire.  The  Spartans  could  not 
adapt  themselves  to  any  change,  could  not  summon  the  minimum  diplomatic 
and  governmental  skills  necessary  for  successful  expansion.  The  Romans, 
though  it  is  not  unfair  to  say  that  there  runs  through  their  whole  history  a 

3  Book  VI,  305-314,  The  Aeneid  of  Vergil,  trans,  by  Rolfe  Humphries,  New  York, 
Scribner,  1951,  p.  154. 


The  Greco-Roman  World 

certain  distrust  of  the  speculative  intellect,  and,  at  the  very  least,  a  certain 
excessive  if  not  awkward  seriousness  among  their  intellectuals,  nonetheless 
made  excellent  use  of  their  minds  to  adapt  their  resources  to  the  drive  toward 
expansion.  They  were,  as  we  all  know,  good  lawyers,  diplomatists,  engineers, 
administrators.  Their  civic  life  was  by  no  means  an  unprofitable  adherence 
to  custom;  on  the  contrary,  out  of  the  struggle  of  patricians  and  plebeians,  out 
of  the  wars  with  their  neighbors,  they  acquired  the  skills  with  which,  luck 
aiding,  they  were  to  conquer  what  was  for  them  almost  the  known  world. 

Cicero,  a  conventional  person  on  the  defensive  in  a  time  when  many  of 
the  old  ways  were  vanishing,  is  throughout  his  numerous  writings  a  good, 
platitudinous  authority  for  the  old  Roman  moral  outlook.  Here  he  is  at  his 
average  pace: 

But  when  with  a  rational  spirit  you  have  surveyed  the  whole  field,  there  is  no 
social  relation  among  them  all  more  close,  none  more  dear  than  that  which  links 
each  one  of  us  with  our  country.  Parents  are  dear;  dear  are  children,  relatives, 
friends;  but  one  native  land  embraces  all  our  loves.  .  .  ,4 

Yet  the  ideal  seems  warmer  and  more  sympathetic  in  the  fragments  we  have 
of  less  deliberately  improving  literature,  notably  in  the  inscriptions,  which 
are  no  doubt  not  without  contrivance,  but  which  often  ring  true.  Here  is  an 
epitaph  from  one  of  the  lower  trades,  that  of  butcher: 

Lucius  Aurelius  Hennia,  a  freedman  of  Lucius,  a  butcher  of  the  Viroinal  Hill. 
She  who  went  before  me  in  death,  my  one  and  only  wife,  chaste  in  body,  a  loving 
woman  of  my  heart  possessed,  living  faithful  to  her  faithful  man;  in  fondness 
equal  to  her  other  virtues,  never  during  bitter  times  did  she  shrink  from  loving 

But  the  Romans  could  not  keep  intact  the  morality  of  their  earlier  and 
simpler  days.  The  old  Roman  qualities  of  gravitas,  pietas,  virtus — all  subtly 
but  very  definitely  different  from  what  the  English  words  derived  from  them 
suggest  to  us — never  wholly  disappear,  if  you  look  for  them,  in  Roman  his- 
tory. But  they  do  not,  after  the  conquest  of  Carthage  and  the  East,  make  the 
style,  the  tone,  of  the  Greco-Roman  culture.  The  loss  of  the  close-knit  disci- 
pline, the  virtues  of  the  simple  life,  and  the  cohesion  of  the  patriarchal  family 
can  be  noted  in  the  very  articulate  effort  of  high-minded  reformers  to  revive 
them.  These  moralists,  from  the  elder  Cato,  who  caricatures  the  early  Ro- 
man type,  to  the  Augustan  generation,  including  emphatically  that  tardy  strict 

*  Cicero,  De  Officiis,  trans,  by  Walter  Miller,  Cambridge,  Mass.,  Harvard  University 
Press,  1951,  Loeb  Classical  Library,  1.17(57). 

5  E.  H.  WarmiBgton,  Remains  of  Old  Latin,  London,  Heinemann,  1940,  Loeb  Classical 
Library,  Vol.  IV,  p.  23. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

moralist  Augustus  himself,  certainly  exaggerate  the  completeness  of  the  loss. 
The  historian,  however,  if  he  must  have  a  general  rule  in  such  matters,  will 
find  the  folk  wisdom  of  "where  there's  smoke  there's  fire"  a  bit  safer  than  the 
folk  wisdom  of  the  tale  of  the  boy  who  cried  "Wolf,  wolf!" 

Livy's  own  diagnosis  was  oversimple.  As  he  makes  clear  in  his  preface,  he 
blames  the  loss  of  the  old  virtues  chiefly  on  increasing  wealth  and  luxury. 
He  writes,  for  instance,  of  the  first  part  of  the  second  century  B.C.: 

At  that  time  the  cook,  to  the  ancient  Romans  the  most  worthless  of  slaves,  both 
in  their  judgment  of  values  and  in  the  use  they  made  of  him,  began  to  have  value, 
and  what  had  been  merely  a  necessary  service  came  to  be  regarded  as  an  art.  Yet 
those  things  which  were  then  looked  upon  as  remarkable  were  hardly  even  the 
germs  of  the  luxury  to  come.6 

Cato,  though  he  blanketed  his  whole  age  in  blame,  and  thought  the  younger 
generation  was  going  soft,  was  especially  bitter  against  the  rising  intellec- 
tualism  of  education,  and  the  admiration  for  those  slippery  creatures  the 
Greeks.  The  censors  in  92  B.C.  issued  an  edict  against  the  new  schools  of 
rhetoric  which  is  typical  enough: 

Our  fathers  determined  what  they  wished  their  children  to  learn  and  what  schools 
they  desired  them  to  attend.  These  innovations  in  the  customs  and  principle  of 
our  forefathers  do  not  please  us  nor  seem  proper.  Therefore  it  appears  necessary 
to  make  our  opinion  known  to  those  who  have  such  [newfangled]  schools  and 
those  who  are  in  the  habit  of  attending  them,  that  they  are  displeasing  to  us.7 

One  may  believe  that  earlier  when  the  censors  said  "displeasing"  the 
word  was  strong  enough.  In  the  later  years  of  the  Republic  not  even  vigorous 
edicts  of  prohibition  worked.  The  Roman  housewife  of  the  early  days  seems 
to  have  been  in  a  position  not  unlike  that  of  the  Athenian  housewife,  or,  at 
any  rate,  if  not  so  secluded,  held  to  rigorous  standards  of  quiet  obedience. 
Her  emancipation  is  a  clear  index  of  the  disintegration  of  the  early  Roman 
moral  world.  Yet  already  in  the  Republic  one  finds  efforts  to  keep  the  ladies 
good  by  edict,  as,  for  instance,  by  forbidding  them  to  drink  wine.  In  a  similar 
frame  of  mind  the  Roman  authorities  early  in  the  second  century  B.C.  sought 
to  suppress  not  only  in  Rome  but  throughout  Italy  the  celebration  of  the 
newly  imported  Bacchic  rites.  This  "persecution"  was  based  on  much  the 
same  arguments  that  were  later  to  be  used  against  the  Christians:  the  rites 

*Livy,  trans,  by  Evan  T.  Sage,  Cambridge,  Mass.,  Harvard  University  Press,  1936, 
Loeb  Classical  Library,  Book  XXXIX,  vi,  9. 

7  Quoted  in  N.  Lewis  and  M.  Reinhold,  Roman  Civilization,  New  York,  Columbia 
University  Press,  1955,  Vol.  I,  p.  492. 


The  Greco-Roman  World 

were  held  to  lead  to  all  sorts  of  vile  practices,  and  to  make  the  worshipers 
untrustworthy  citizens.8 

We  here  encounter  clearly  for  the  first  time  another  persistent  theme  in 
the  moral  history  of  the  West,  and  one  that  confronts  the  sociological  histo- 
rian with  some  difficult  problems:  sumptuary,  prohibitory,  "blue  law"  legis- 
lation accompanied  by  official  or  semiofficial  educational  propaganda  toward 
a  return  to  "primitive"  virtues.  There  is  no  simple  formula  available,  certainly 
no  extreme  statement  that  such  efforts  are  always  in  vain,  always  efforts  to 
go  against  the  tide,  always  an  indication  that  a  given  society  is  in  fact  already 
completely  corrupt,  decadent,  "loose,"  doomed.  The  historian  must  try  to 
judge  each  case  separately,  in  the  hope  that  effective  comparisons  may  even- 
tually permit  some  generalizations.  On  the  whole,  what  the  old  republican 
reformers  sought  to  preserve  was  indeed  lost  in  the  later  Rome,  where,  as  we 
shall  shortly  see,  the  ruling  classes  and  the  urban  masses  in  Rome  itself  and 
in  the  great  metropolitan  Eastern  centers  have  left  in  history  an  indelible  and 
surely  not  wholly  undeserved  reputation  for  conduct  below  not  only  the  best 
Western  standards  of  ethics,  but  below  the  actual  standards  of  conduct  in 
most  Western  societies. 

Yet  the  Rome  that  seemed  to  be  about  to  go  to  pieces  in  the  second  cen- 
tury B.C.  did  survive  and  even  grow  for  many  more  centuries.  The  Roman 
Empire  was  by  no  means  what  we  think  of  as  the  welfare  state,  but  it  was  no 
Oriental  despotism,  and  it  could  not  have  been  held  together  by  cowardly 
soldiers  and  corrupt  administrators.  Even  at  the  top,  the  balance  is  not  wholly 
on  the  side  of  Nero,  and  wholly  against  Marcus  Aurelius;  at  the  level  of  the 
now  nameless  men  who  did  the  work,  the  Empire  was  served  by  civil  and 
military  administrators  with  high,  if  not  precisely  Platonic  or  puritanical, 
standards  of  morality.  And  we  can  be  pretty  sure  that  all  over  the  Empire,  in 
the  soft  East  as  well  as  in  the  hard  West,  there  were  at  all  times  thousands  of 
country  gentlemen  as  conscientious,  as  sober  and  hard-working,  as  civilized, 
in  the  best  sense  of  the  word,  as  was  Plutarch,  who  lived  in  Boeotia  at  the 
turn  of  the  first  to  the  second  centuries  A.D.  At  the  very  end  of  the  Empire 
we  come  across  a  work  of  the  Gallic  poet  Ausonius,  Roman  consul  in  379,  the 
Parentalia,  in  which  he  describes  several  generations  of  his  family  in  Au- 
vergne  and  Aquitaine  in  a  spirit  of  old  Roman  piety  and  realism.  The  men  are 
not  in  the  least  like  the  vile  plotters  of  Tacitus,  nor  the  women  like  the 
scandalous  ladies  of  Suetonius.  In  fact,  we  seem  to  be  in  nineteenth-century 

8  Livy,  Sage,  trans.,  Book  XXXIX,  viii-xix;  Lewis  and  Reinhold,  Roman  Civilization, 
Vol.  H,  pp.  600-601. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

Lyons,  or  Edinburgh,  or  Boston,  with  one  of  those  sober  dynasties  of  pillars 
of  society  so  characteristic  of  these  centers  of  virtue.9 

The  competitive  spirit  survived  to  the  last,  certainly  at  the  very  top.  The 
struggle  for  the  imperial  purple  is  among  the  most  ruthless  on  record.  Even 
in  an  age  of  violence,  one  would  suppose  that  a  rough  statistical  awareness 
that  the  odds  were  against  an  emperor's  dying  a  natural  death  might  deter 
candidates,  which  it  clearly  did  not.  Huizinga  suggests  that  the  baths,  theaters, 
halls,  and  other  public  works  given  by  wealthy  donors  all  over  the  Greco- 
Roman  world  were  not  inspired  by  feelings  of  charity,  nor  even,  as  they  really 
do  seem  to  have  been  in  Athens  of  the  great  days,  by  public  spirit,  but  by  the 
desire  to  show  off,  by  what  he  calls  the  "potlatch  spirit."10  Certainly  the 
Trimalchio  of  Petronius  was  moved  by  the  potlatch  spirit;  he  constantly 
boasts  to  his  guests  about  the  cost  and  rareness  of  their  food,  and  has  the 
wine  brought  in  with  the  jars  labeled  conspicuously  Falernian  Opimian  one 
hundred  years  old.11  Vergil,  as  usual,  puts  it  nobly  in  the  old  heroic  way.  The 
crews  are  waiting  for  the  signal  to  start  a  boat  race: 

They  are  at  their  places,  straining, 

Arms  stretched  to  the  oars,  waiting  the  word,  and  their  chests 
Heave,  and  their  hearts  are  pumping  fast;  ambition 
And  nervousness  take  hold  of  them.  The  signal!  .  .  . 

Considunt  transtris;  intentaque  brachia  remis: 
Intenti  expectant  signum,  exsultantiaque  haurit 
Corda  pavor  pulsans,  laudumque  arrecta  cupido.12 

The  key  phrase  is  laudumque  arrecta  cupido,  which  I  have  seen  translated 
"and  the  wild  thirst  for  praise."  Humphries's  "ambition  and  nervousness," 
whether  you  think  it  Vergilian  or  not,  is  a  fine  description  of  the  eternal 
Western  aristocratic  agon. 


Rome  at  almost  any  time  after  the  end  of  the  second  century  B.C.  has  long 
been  a  symbol  for  moral  looseness,  for  evil,  not  only  in  public  but  in  private 

9 1  expect  the  convinced  primitivist  will  argue  that  Ausonius's  family  came  from  an 
as  yet  uncorrupted  provincial  region,  and  cannot  be  taken  as  typical.  This  point  can- 
not be  decisively  proved  or  disproved.  But  Ausonius  did  move  in  the  highest  circles 
at  Rome  itself.  See  Samuel  Dill,  Roman  Society  in  the  Last  Century  of  the  Western 
Empire,  London,  Macmillan,  1910,  Book  II,  Chap.  HI,  pp.  167-178.  Also  pp.  158-159 
for  Ausonius's  advancement  under  Gratian,  and  pp.  402-403  for  his  influence  in  in- 
creasing the  salaries  of  teachers. 

10  Johan  Huizinga,  Homo  Ludens,  Boston,  Beacon,  1955,  p.  178. 

11  Petronius,  Trimalchio' s  Dinner,  trans,  by  Harry  Thurston  Peck,  New  York,  Dodd, 
Mead,  1908,  p.  85. 

12  The  Aeneid  of  Vergil,  Rolfe  Humphries  trans.,  pp.  117-118,  Book  V,  136-138. 


The  Greco-Roman  World 

life.  As  usual,  our  sources  deal  almost  wholly  with  the  doings  of  the  small 
group  at  the  top  of  the  social  pyramid.  We  may  then  begin  by  fixing  our  atten- 
tion on  these  people,  fully  aware  that  at  the  very  least,  since  the  masses  could 
not  afford  the  luxuries  of  the  rich,  they  could  not  practice  their  vices,  certainly 
not  as  extensively  and  as  intensively.  But  we  cannot  assume  that  there  is  no 
relation  between  the  conduct  and  ethical  standards  of  the  few  and  the  conduct 
of  the  many.  Like  the  related  problem  of  how  far  sumptuary  and  other  moral 
legislation  to  restore  primitive  virtues  is  really  effective,  a  problem  briefly 
noted  just  above,  the  historian  has  to  do  his  best  to  judge  each  case  as  it 
presents  itself.  A  corrupt  aristocracy  and  a  sober,  steady,  virtuous  populace 
seem  hardly  to  go  contentedly  and  in  equilibrium  together,  but  the  historian 
cannot  close  his  mind  to  the  possibility  that  they  may,  at  least  in  the  short 

There  must  be  made  the  caution  once  more  that  our  sources  for  the  horrid 
conduct  of  the  ruling  classes  of  the  late  Republic  and,  subject  to  some  irregu- 
lar cycles  of  good  emperors  and  bad,  of  the  Empire  in  the  whole  period  of  its 
nearly  five  hundred  years  of  life  certainly  do  not  do  much  whitewashing.  We 
have  so  far  passed  the  days  of  complete  reverence  for  whatever  was  written 
in  classical  Greek  or  Latin  that  it  may  be  permissible  to  assert  that  Suetonius 
and  some  of  the  lesser  historians  of  the  Augusti  had  tabloid  mentalities.  And 
Tacitus,  a  great  historian  and  no  doubt  a  good  man,  displays  that  preoccupa- 
tion with  wickedness  characteristic  of  the  high-minded  reformer  as  well  as  of 
the  good  newspaperman. 

Yet  the  wickedness  is  certainly  there.  To  begin  with  a  simple  and  in  a 
way  constant  or  endemic  form  of  misconduct,  there  is  always  sex.  The  ex- 
ploits of  Messalina,  third  wife  of  the  Emperor  Claudius,  are  still  familiar  in 
our  best  homes.  Her  lovers  were  legion,  chosen  from  all  sorts  and  conditions 
of  men.  Her  sexual  endurance — one  lover  after  another  all  night — challenges 
belief  even  in  such  a  record-conscious  age  as  our  own.  The  normal  vocabulary 
of  sexual  abnormality — nymphomania,  erotomania,  and  the  like — pales  be- 
fore her  achievements.  Is  she  a  legend?  Perhaps  to  a  degree  she  is,  but 
there  can  be  no  doubt  that  the  Empress  was  a  very  loose  woman,  and  a  palace 
plotter  and  unscrupulous  participant  in  the  murderous  competition  of  high 
politics.  There  can  be  no  doubt  that  Augustus's  own  womenfolk,  his  wife, 
Livia,  and  his  daughter,  Julia,  let  this  restorer  of  virtuous  living  down  rather 
worse  than  Napoleon's  promiscuous  sister,  Pauline,  let  him  down  in  a  some- 
what similar  attempt  to  make  a  renewed  aristocracy  respectable  in  the  eyes 
of  the  world.  But  there  is  no  need  to  insist  further  on  this  point;  all  but  the 
most  bowdlerized  of  history  books  will  give  you  the  details. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

The  literary  confirm  the  sexual  looseness  of  the  ruling  classes.  The  corpus 
of  Greek  and  Latin  writings  together,  of  course,  form  the  first  and  still  one 
of  the  major  sources  of  pornographic  pleasure  available  to  the  Western  reader; 
for  not  until  quite  recently  have  men  dared  to  read  pornography  into  the  Old 
Testament.  We  shall  come  again  to  the  complexity,  the  range,  the  modernity 
of  this  society  of  the  One  World  of  the  Roman  Empire.  In  the  field  of  actual 
physical  exercise  of  the  sex  organs,  after  all,  by  no  means  the  richest  and 
most  complicated  field  open  to  human  activity,  it  may  well  be  true  that  the 
Greco-Roman  experience  pretty  well  exhausted  the  possibilities,  that  we  have 
since  invented  little  really  new.  The  clinical  record,  though  it  was  hardly 
composed  in  a  clinical  spirit,  is  there,  for  the  normal  as  well  as  for  the  abnor- 
mal. Indeed,  most  of  the  actual  terms  in  sexual  abnormality  are  of  Latin,  old 
Latin,  or  Greek,  not  new  medical,  coinage — cunnilinguis,  fellatrix,  tribades, 
and  the  like.  Nor,  at  least  among  the  literary,  is  there  a  lack  of  the  stepped-up 
psychological  tortures  of  the  erotic  competition,  of  what  we  might  fashionably 
call  the  meta-erotic.  Catullus  and  his  Lesbia,  Propertius  and  his  Cynthia,  are 
evidence  that  the  Roman  could  build  up  as  complicated  a  relation  between 
the  sexes  as  any  modern  French  novelist.  Catullus  in  particular  can  range 
from  the  frankly  indecent  through  the  pleasantly  romantic  and  the  gently 
cynical  to  the  depths  of  self-analysis  in  love,  as  in  the  famous  and  exceedingly 

Odi  et  amo:  quare  id  faciam,  fortasse  requiris 
Nescio,  sed  fieri  sentio  et  excrucior.^ 

The  vices  of  less  complicated  self-indulgence  are  there  as  well.  The 
Roman  upper  classes  have  left  a  reputation  for  luxury  that  still  echoes — 
delicate  foods  imported  from  all  over  the  world,  warm  baths,  warm  houses,  a 
comfort  not  attained  by  European  upper  classes  again  until  our  own  time, 
and  not  always  then,  hosts  of  slaves  waiting  on  every  movement,  town  house 
and  country  house,  in  short,  all  that  very  great  wealth  can  bring.  Already  in 
the  last  years  of  the  Republic,  Lucullus,  no  mere  idler,  but  a  distinguished 
soldier  and  politician,  was  to  establish  such  a  reputation  for  what  Veblen 
called  "conspicuous  consumption"  that  the  Lucullan  banquet  has  endured  as 
a  cliche  right  down  to  the  present,  when  Latin  cliches  have  almost  vanished. 
Lucullus  was  a  gentleman,  and — though  no  Greek  would  admit  it  of  a  Ro- 
man, any  more  than  a  Frenchman  today  of  an  American — may  be  assumed 
to  have  some  sense  of  security  in  good  taste.  Closer  to  what  inspired  Veblen 

is  Carmina,  LXXXV.  Literally,  "I  hate  and  I  love;  should  you  ask  me  why,  I  do  not 
know,  but  I  feel  it,  and  I  suffer  exceedingly." 


The  Greco-Roman  World 

to  his  wrath,  the  Romans,  too,  had  their  newly  rich.  The  tasteless  excesses 
of  conspicuous  consumption  in  which  these  arrivistes  indulged  themselves 
and  their  retainers  have  been  duly  reported  by  the  intellectuals  who  witnessed 
them,  and  doubtless,  after  their  fashion,  enjoyed  them.  Petronius,  in  his 
satirical  novel,  of  which  we  have  but  fragments,  tells  in  detail  about  a  feast 
given  by  the  fabulously  wealthy  freedman  Trimalchio  (he  did  not  quite 
remember  where  all  his  estates  were) :  toward  the  end,  Trimalchio,  in  his 
cups,  tells  about  a  funeral  inscription  he  has  devised  for  himself. 



Elected  to  the  Augustal  College 
in  his  absence.  He  might  have 
held  every  civil  post  in  Rome; 
but  he  refused.  A  worthy  citizen, 
brave  and  true.  A  self-made  man, 
he  died  worth  30,000,000  sterling. 
Yet  he  had  no  college  training. 

Farewell  to  him — and  thee.14 

It  should  hardly  be  necessary  to  note  that  the  Roman  imperial  upper 
classes  pursued  many  of  the  conventional  activities  of  an  upper  class,  activ- 
ities the  censorious  moralist  lists  among  the  vices.  Gambling  was  high  among 
these,  and,  as  almost  always,  was  by  no  means  limited  to  the  upper  classes. 
Nor,  of  course,  were  the  gladiatorial  games  and  the  chariot  races  so  limited. 
Aristocrats,  emperors  themselves,  "descended"  into  the  arena,  usually  with 
a  degree  of  safety  not  granted  to  the  professional  gladiators;  that  this  was  a 
moral  descent  was  certainly  the  general  opinion  of  the  solid  responsible 
people  we  shall  shortly  study  as  the  Stoic  gentlemen  of  the  civil  and  military 
services.  Actually,  these  Roman  aristocrats  did  not  have  the  outlet  for  per- 
sonal athleticism  the  medieval  knight  and  the  nineteenth-century  English 
gentleman — and  the  Americans,  too — had  in  field  sports,  organized  games, 
hunting  with  the  horse,  jousting,  and  the  like.  The  horse  is  important  in 
Rome,  but  in  war  and  work  and  in  the  professional  horse  racing  of  the  circus, 
not  in  the  hunting  field.  We  must  come  again  to  this  sporting  side  of  Roman 
life.  Meanwhile,  it  is  sufficient  to  note  that  some  of  the  vices  of  the  upper 
classes  of  the  Empire  were  a  reflection  of  their  exclusion  from  many  ordinary 

14  The  Satyricon,  trans,  as  Leader  of  Fashion  by  J.  M.  Mitchell,  London,  Routledge, 
1922,  pp.  104-105. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

aristocratic  physical  games  of  agonistic  competition.  They,  like  all  aristocrats, 
wanted  to  make  records;  they  made  them  in  vice. 

This  was  a  society  so  firmly  built  on  great  social  and  economic  inequal- 
ities that  the  good  intentions  of  the  virtuous  moralists  among  the  upper 
classes  must  seem  ludicrous  to  us,  who  take  our  egalitarian  faith  with  increas- 
ing seriousness  and  literalness.  Seneca,  a  conscientious  Stoic  not  untouched 
by  a  mild  moral  primitivism  of  the  kind  that  attacked  the  French  aristocracy 
just  before  1789,  begins  one  of  his  contrived  "letters"  on  the  virtues  of  the 
simple  life: 

My  friend  Maximus  and  I  have  been  spending  a  most  happy  period  of  two  days, 
taking  with  us  very  few  slaves — one  carriage  load — and  no  paraphernalia  except 
what  we  wore  on  our  persons.  The  mattress  lies  on  the  ground,  and  I  upon  the 
mattress.  There  are  two  rugs — one  to  spread  beneath  us  and  one  to  cover  us. 
Nothing  could  have  been  subtracted  from  our  luncheon;  it  took  not  more  than  an 
hour  to  prepare.  .  .  ,15 

Seneca,  a  philosopher  whose  part  in  high  politics  by  no  means  confirms 
Plato's  hopes  for  his  philosopher-statesmen,  reminds  us  that,  in  the  actual 
business  of  ruling,  these  Roman  privileged  classes  indulged  in  one  of  the 
most  ferocious  struggles  for  power  on  record,  one  in  which  plotting,  spying, 
informing,  bribery,  treason  usually  work  up  to  murder  or  suicide.  With  cer- 
tain interludes  of  stability,  the  best  known  of  which  is  the  period  of  the  "five 
good  emperors"  from  96  to  180,  in  which  Gibbon  thought  any  man  would 
elect  to  have  lived  if  he  could,  imperial  Roman  history  at  the  top  is  a  record 
of  instability  and  violence.  Perhaps  we  note  it  more  conspicuously  than  as 
bad  a  record,  say,  among  the  Merovingians  or  among  the  Turks — or  even 
Latin  Americans  and  Soviet  Russians — because  in  the  back  of  our  minds  we 
expect  better  of  the  law-abiding  Romans  of  old.  But  the  reality  of  this  shock- 
ing instability  of  the  throne  and  of  palace  politics  is  unquestioned,  and  it  sets 
for  the  historian  of  morals  another  of  his  many  unsolved  problems:  murder, 
slander,  lying,  bad  faith,  all  the  role  of  evil  so  eloquently,  and  basically  accu- 
rately, called  by  a  Tacitus  are  morally  far  more  wicked  than  the  fleshly  vices 
of  gambling,  eating,  drinking,  and  promiscuous  love-making  we  have  noted 
above.  (Do  not  let  nineteenth-century  anticlericals  persuade  you  that  in  the 
Judaeo-Christian  tradition  the  mere  vices  of  the  flesh  are  ranked  as  deadlier 
sins  than  the  great  evils  of  pride,  bad  faith,  cruelty;  as  we  shall  shortly  see, 
this  is  not  so.) 

15  Epistolae  Morales,  trans,  by  Richard  M.  Gummere,  London,  Heinemann,  1920,  Vol. 
n,  Ixxxvii,  2. 


The  Greco-Roman  World 

Is  there,  however,  such  a  relation  between  the  vices  of  the  flesh  and  the 
sins  of  the  spirit  that,  as  with,  for  instance,  the  Roman  ruling  classes  of  the 
Empire,  one  can  say  that  given  their  luxurious  self-indulgence,  their  more 
serious  vices  follow  in  consequence?  Almost  certainly  there  is  here  no  direct 
causal  sequence.  A  murderous  struggle  for  power  went  on  among  the  Italian 
upper  classes  of  the  Renaissance,  accompanied  by  great  luxury  and  self- 
indulgence;  such  luxury  and  self-indulgence  among  the  upper  classes  of  West- 
ern Europe  in  the  seventeenth  and  eighteenth  centuries  were  not  accompanied 
by  unusual  political  violence  and  the  immorality  of  power.  Moreover,  it  must 
never  be  forgotten  that  almost  always  in  Western  history  the  ferocious  com- 
petition that  results  in  unrestrained  abandonment  of  moral  decencies  and  the 
self-indulgence  of  an  exceedingly  rich  class  go  on  among  the  very  few,  and 
that  just  beneath  them  there  is  a  larger  group  of  administrators,  professional 
men,  even  intellectuals,  whose  conduct  is  usually  vastly  better.  The  Victorians 
and  the  Marxists  have  persuaded  us  that  the  middle  class  and  middle-class 
morality  are  consequences  of  the  industrial  revolution,  and  did  not  exist  in 
earlier  societies;  actually,  something  very  like  this  solid  group  has  long  played 
a  part  in  Western  society.  Finally,  even  in  the  Roman  upper  classes  at  their 
worst,  there  were  always  men  and  women  who  strove  to  lead  the  good  life 
their  cultural  tradition  made  clear  to  them.  We  must  not  forget  those  five  good 
emperors  in  a  row,  topped  by  Marcus  Aurelius. 


If  the  violence  and  corruption  of  the  imperial  aristocracy  make  one  of  the 
darker,  and  naturally  more  interesting,  pages  of  Western  history,  the  ideal  of 
moral  excellence  that  emerges  from  this  very  aristocracy  and  from  the  groups 
just  beneath  it  in  the  social  pyramid  has  ever  since  been  one  of  great  prestige 
in  our  tradition.  The  Greco-Roman  Stoic  ideal,  embodied  in  many  a  soldier, 
scholar,  and  gentleman  who  did  the  work  of  the  Empire  and  left  no  trace  on 
history,  is  recognizably  a  successor  to  the  old  Greek  ideal  of  the  beautiful- 
and-good.  It  treasures  the  past  that  had  produced  that  ideal.  It  retains  a 
respect  for  the  body,  a  moderation,  a  temperateness,  reminiscent  of  the  Aris- 
totelian Golden  Mean.  In  this  real  world,  it  still  retains  some  flavor  of  the 
Greek  sense  of  an  order  of  rank  in  which  the  mechanic  cannot  be  truly  virtu- 
ous and  the  slave  is  marked  by  nature  as  an  inferior.  In  ideal,  of  course,  these 
Greco-Roman  gentlemen  were  firm  believers  in  the  equality  of  all  men. 

The  formal  philosophical  tag  Stoic  is  not  altogether  fortunate  here,  but 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

I  have  sought  Li  vain  for  a  brief  phrase  to  describe  this  moral  ideal  as  effec- 
tively as  does  the  beautiful-and-good  for  the  old  Greeks,  and  for  an  embodied 
hero  who  incorporates  and  makes  tangible  this  ideal  as  does  Achilles  for  the 
Homeric  Age.  The  truth  is  that  we  have  now  arrived  at  a  late  age  and  a  most 
complicated  society  for  which  it  is  difficult  to  find  a  neat  symbol  of  the 
dominant  tone  or  style.  Yet  there  was  such  a  style  or  ideal  among  the  upper 
classes.  And  it  was  this  tone  or  style  that  stood  for  centuries  as  the  major 
cultural  heritage  left  to  later  times  by  the  Greco-Roman  world.  Only  since 
the  Renaissance  has  Periclean  Athens  seemed  more  typical  of  classical  antiq- 
uity than  the  Rome  of  Augustus  or  of  the  Antonines. 

Stoicism  goes  back  in  the  genealogy  of  ideas  to  the  successors  of  Plato 
and  Aristotle  in  the  formal  schools  of  Athenian  philosophy.  Zeno,  the  founder 
of  what  one  easily  falls  into  calling  a  "sect,"  taught  in  the  Stoa,  or  porch,  in 
Athens  at  the  beginning  of  the  third  century  B.C.  He  was  an  almost  exact  con- 
temporary of  Epicurus,  the  founder  of  a  rival  sect,  the  Epicureans,  which  can 
easily  be  made  to  come  out  much  like  the  Stoics.  Both  philosophies,  though 
they  of  course  have  metaphysical  and  epistemological  implications — often 
made  explicit  in  the  course  of  their  long  histories — are  chiefly  concerned  with 
ethics.  Indeed,  it  is  not  misleading  to  say  that  they  arose  in  the  world  of  the 
disintegrating  city-state  to  give  hope,  faith,  and  guidance  to  men  for  whom 
the  old  Olympian  faith  had  become  impossibly  naive,  and  who  could  no 
longer  simply  find  their  moral  place  as  citizens  in  a  world  of  competing 

There  is  a  sense  in  which  the  now  often  used  term  "secular  religion"  or 
"surrogate  religion"  as  applied  to  communism,  positivism,  "humanism" — 
the  kind  that  comes  out  of  Yellow  Springs,  Ohio,  not  the  kind  that  comes  out 
of  Florence — and  other  modern  cults  may  be  applied  to  Stoicism,  Epicurean- 
ism, and  their  variants.  The  Painted  Porch  of  Zeno  and  the  Garden  of  Epi- 
curus were  both  retreats,  closets  of  the  philosophers,  from  which,  nonetheless, 
there  emerged  a  form  of  faith,  aristocratic,  never  widespread  among  the 
masses — Epictetus,  the  slave  who  was  one  of  the  masters  of  Roman  Stoicism, 
is  simply  one  more  example  of  the  eternal  Western  career  open  to  talents — 
but  a  great  deal  more  than  an  academic  philosophical  doctrine. 

Stoicism  finds  its  highest  ideal  in  ataraxia  (drapa&'a),  "impassiveness," 
clearly  a  derivation  of  the  Aristotelian  theoria,  and  equally  clearly  one  of  the 
many  forms  of  a  Western  ideal  of  mystic  serenity,  of  nonstruggle,  which  the 
West  and  these  same  Stoics  rarely  attain  in  practice.  Ataraxia  is  a  state  of  mind 
untroubled  by  the  petty  cares  of  this  world,  unaghast  at  its  many  horrors, 
above  the  melee,  the  Western  sage's  approach  to  the  Buddhist  nirvana.  But  the 


The  Greco-Roman  World 

Roman — and  the  Greek — Stoics  by  no  means  fled  the  world  and  its  responsi- 
bilities, and  they  are  not  much  like  even  the  Buddhists  of  the  Mahayana,  who 
nobly  forsook  their  own  nirvana  to  lift  others  nearer  to  it;  and  they  are  cer- 
tainly not  in  monastic  retreat  from  the  world.  One  feels  about  the  Roman 
Stoics  that  their  ataraxia  was  a  singularly  unreal  abstraction,  a  gesture  toward 
the  philosophic  origin  of  their  faith.  There  is  even  a  Stoic  contempt  for  this 
world  of  the  flesh;  but  contempt  led  the  Stoic  to  no  desert,  to  no  monastery. 
He  would  not  bow  to  the  world  in  so  extravagant  a  gesture  as  that  of  the 
monks.  Ataraxia  visibly  meant  no  more  than  calm,  dignity,  self-control,  the 
traditional  gentlemanly  virtues,  held  a  bit  self-consciously. 

The  Stoic  held  firmly  to  his  earthly  station  and  its  duties.  There  is  even 
a  touch  in  someone  like  Marcus  Aurelius  of  the  pride  of  the  martyr,  the  man 
who  deliberately  does  what  is  difficult  and  unpleasant  because  clearly  he 
wants  to  do  it,  gains  stature  with  himself  by  doing  it.  For  the  most  part,  how- 
ever, the  Stoic  seems  as  serene  as  he  says  he  is,  aware  that  his  world  is  a 
harsh  one,  that  he  cannot  make  it  much  better,  but  that  he  can  hardly  avoid 
trying  to  make  it  such.  His  self-control  curbs  even  his  moral  indignation. 
Seneca  even  "declares  his  belief  that  the  contemporaries  of  Nero  were  not 
worse  than  the  contemporaries  of  Clodius  or  Lucullus,  that  one  age  differs 
from  another  rather  in  the  greater  prominence  of  different  vices."16  He  is  not, 
in  short,  a  moral  innovator,  a  meliorist;  but  neither  is  he  a  despairing  or 
simply  lazy  and  indifferent  spectator  of  life.  He  does  his  duty.  He  keeps  at 
the  job  of  cleaning  the  Augean  stables,  with  no  illusion  that  he  is  Hercules. 
He  is,  in  fact,  quite  incapable  of  the  engineer-inventor's  skill  by  which  Her- 
cules solved  his  problem.  The  Augean  stables  that  faced  the  Greco-Roman 
soldier  and  administrator  were  never  really  cleaned. 

The  Stoic  held  firmly  a  philosophical  doctrine  of  necessity,  which,  as  it 
consistently  has  in  our  Western  history,  seems  to  have  sharpened  his  sense  of 
the  badness  of  much  of  the  necessary,  as  well  as  his  desire  to  change  the 
necessary.  It  is  true  he  would  not  like  the  matter  put  this  way,  true  that  the 
textbooks  sometimes  accuse  him  of  fleeing  the  world.  But  his  actions  are 
unambiguous;  the  Stoic  was  a  fighter.  Seneca's  rhetoric  is  firm  indeed: 

All  things  move  on  in  an  appointed  path,  and  our  first  day  fixed  our  last.  Those 
things  God  may  not  change  which  speed  on  their  way,  close  woven  with  their 
causes.  To  each  his  established  life  goes  on,  unmovable  by  any  prayer.17 

i«  Dill,  Roman  Society  from  Nero  to  Marcus  Aurelius,  New  York,  Macmillan,  1905, 
p.  10,  paraphrasing  Seneca,  De  Beneficiis,  1.10.1. 

IT  Seneca's  Tragedies,  trans,  by  F.  J.  Miller,  Cambridge,  Mass.,  Harvard  University 
Press,  1953,  Vol.  I,  Oedipus,  987-992. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

But  this  is  rhetoric,  not  analysis  or  description.  Marcus  Aurelius  was  the 
slave  of  Duty,  not  of  Necessity. 

The  Christians  were  later  shocked  by  the  Stoic — in  fact,  generally,  Roman 
— feeling  that  suicide  is  legitimate,  even  praiseworthy  under  certain  condi- 
tions. One  doubts  very  much  whether  at  the  moment  of  slashing  his  veins,  the 
Stoic  seriously  went  over  the  doctrine  of  necessity  in  his  mind  and  decided 
that  some  will  not  his  own  was  guiding  the  knife.  Even  the  Stoic's  approval 
of  suicide  (how  approve  the  inevitable?)  was  not  unconditional:  the  suicide 
must  not  involve  any  harm  to  others,  directly  or  indirectly.18 

The  Stoic  did  not  "believe  in"  the  gods  of  the  traditional  Olympian  pan- 
theon, but  neither  did  he  reject  the  gods — at  least,  he  did  not  reject  them  in 
the  ferocious  mood  of  the  modern  "materialist"  and  atheist  rejecting  Chris- 
tianity. There  is  some  trace  of  the  attitude  that  a  gentleman  does  not  openly 
practice  a  disbelief  that  will  be  imitated  with  disastrous  results  to  their  morals 
by  the  masses,  who  do  not  have  the  gentleman's  sense  of  noblesse  oblige.  But 
in  fairness  to  what  we  may  believe  to  be  the  ordinary,  inarticulate  Stoic 
gentleman,  it  may  be  said  that  he  conformed  religiously  out  of  patriotism, 
out  of  respect  for  the  past,  perhaps  out  of  a  feeling  that,  though  the  gods  were 
not  what  the  vulgar  thought  them  to  be,  still,  there  was  in  the  Olympians 
what  we  should  nowadays  call  a  symbolic  value.  The  Stoic  was  no  skeptic, 
though  he  does  have  a  touch  of  the  modern  Christian  existentialist. 

He  was  not  wholly  a  rationalist  either;  that  is,  he  did  not  suppose  he  had 
an  answer  to  all  problems  of  the  universe.  But  what  the  lonians  had  started 
had  by  Greco-Roman  times  so  grown  as  to  penetrate  into  ordinary  lives.  The 
Stoic's  reason  told  him  a  great  deal  that  common  sense  could  hardly  have 
told  him.  One  of  his  central  doctrines  was  that  all  men  are  created  equal,  that 
the  differences  of  race,  status,  and  conduct  so  conspicuous  to  the  unreflective 
observer  are  superficial  and  artificial.  Cicero  put  it  baldly  in  absolute  if  also 
abstract  terms:  Nihil  est  unum  uni  tarn  simile,  tarn  par,  quam  omnes  inter 
nosmet  ipsos  sumus  (Nothing  is  so  like  another  thing,  so  equal  to  it,  as  we 
[human  beings]  all  are  amongst  ourselves)  ,19  Slavery  could  not  be  reconciled 
with  principles  such  as  these,  and  the  Stoic  writers  insist  that  the  slave  is  a 
fellow  human  being,  endowed  by  nature  with  basic  human  rights,  and  that 
fate  and  human  injustice  have  made  him  what  he  is.  The  great  law  code  which 

18  Westermarck,  Origin  and  Development  of  the  Moral  Ideas,  Vol.  II,  p.  248  ff .,  gives  a 
good  brief  outline  of  classical  opinion  and  practice  of  suicide,  with  many  references  to 
the  sources. 
"  Cicero,  De  Legibus,  1.29. 


The  Greco-Roman  World 

sums  up  so  much  of  Roman  ideals  as  well  as  Roman  experience  puts  it  quite 
clearly:  slavery  is  "an  institution  of  the  Law  of  Nations,  by  which  one  man  is 
made  the  property  of  another,  in  opposition  to  natural  right."20 

The  same  Seneca  we  have  just  now  seen  contenting  himself  with  a  single 
carriage  load  of  slaves  was  one  of  the  most  articulate  in  his  moral  condemna- 
tion of  slavery.  I  do  not  wish  to  give  aid  and  comfort  to  the  naively  cynical 
anti-intellectual  who  maintains  that  men  always  keep  their  ideals  and  their 
conduct  in  separate  compartments  of  their  being,  but  it  does  seem  as  though 
some  of  these  Greco-Roman  gentlemen  carry  the  thing  too  far.  Their  real 
world  was,  in  fact,  one  of  extreme  inequalities  of  all  sorts,  one  in  which 
slavery  formed  the  economic  base  of  the  labor  force,  one  in  which  there  was 
a  true  urban  proletariat — the  word  itself  is  Latin — in  the  great  cities,  one  in 
which  there  was  surely  no  less  than  the  usual  suffering  and  deprivation  that 
has  gone  with  the  human  civilized  lot.  Yet  they  talk  and  write  about  the 
equality  and  dignity  of  man,  about  the  law  of  nature  so  superior  to  our  petty 
particular  laws,  about  that  state  of  self-mastery  they  call  "ataraxia,"  so  diffi- 
cult for  most  of  us  to  attain  on  an  empty  stomach.  They  are  cosmopolitans, 
above  the  narrow  patriotism  of  the  city-state;  yet  do  these  Roman  gentlemen 
really  feel  they  are  no  better  than  the  motley  set  of  peoples  they  rule?  Was 
not  Pontius  Pilate  perhaps  at  heart  an  anti-Semite? 

It  is  not  easy  to  answer  these  questions  from  our  very  miscellaneous 
sources.  There  are  signs  that  the  attitude  put  neatly  in  Juvenal's  Graeculus 
esuriens  never  wholly  left  the  Roman  gentleman;  he  must  have  felt  himself 
superior  to  the  painted  Britons  as  well  as  to  the  already  somewhat  Levantine 
Syrians.  Yet  we,  who  are  so  used  to  great  systems  of  moral  values  based  on 
theories  of  race  or  other  form  of  group  superiority,  Nordic,  Latin,  Anglo- 
Saxon,  American,  Slavic,  must  be  struck  by  the  absence  of  any  such  system- 
atic concepts  among  the  Greco-Romans  of  the  Empire.  The  Stoicism  we 
are  dealing  with  here  takes,  as  we  have  seen,  just  the  opposite  view,  that  racial 
differences  among  men  are  superficial  and  unimportant. 

One  part  of  the  answer  to  our  difficulty  here  must  lie  in  the  fact  that  the 
One  World  of  the  Empire  was  one  only  at  the  top,  among  the  officers,  civil 
servants,  lawyers,  financiers,  landlords,  and  intellectuals  (these  categories  are, 
of  course,  not  mutually  exclusive),  Greek,  Roman,  or  bilingual  in  language, 

20  Institutes,  i.3.2.  quoted  in  Westermarck,  Origin  and  Development  of  the  Moral 
Ideas,  Vol.  I,  p.  693.  Westermarck  on  pp.  689-694  of  this  work  gives  a  good  summary 
of  Greek  and  Roman  ideas  and  attitudes  toward  slavery,  with  many  still-useful 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

Greco-Roman  in  education  and  culture,  who  ran  the  Empire.  Even  among 
the  masses  there  was  no  doubt  in  that  very  modern  world  a  great  deal  more 
actual  moving  about,  physical  as  well  as  social  mobility,  than  we  culture- 
bound  moderns,  who  feel  that  no  one  ever  moved  much  or  far  before  the 
steam  engine,  can  readily  admit.  Christianity,  which  was  not,  as  was  Islam, 
at  first  spread  by  physical  conquest,  could  hardly  have  spread  as  it  did  in  a 
world  of  compartmentalized  territorial  units.  Still,  in  the  sense  that  we  expect 
a  nation-state  today  to  have  a  certain  homogeneity  of  culture,  right  down  to 
the  bottom  of  the  social  pyramid,  it  is  clear  that  the  Roman  Empire  had  noth- 
ing of  the  sort,  save  at  the  top.  The  Stoic  gentleman  was  by  no  means  isolated 
from  "reality,"  by  no  means  living  in  an  ivory  castle,  but  he  did  not  have  the 
facts  of  life  among  the  masses  constantly  nagging  at  him,  could  generalize, 
rationalize,  in  the  company  of  his  equals,  in  a  long  serene  tradition  that  no 
vulgar  concern  for  immediate  practicality,  and  certainly  little  concern  with 
what  we  know  as  science-cwm-technology,  could  disturb. 

Yet,  you  may  observe,  the  Romans  were  a  "practical"  people,  great  engi- 
neers and  builders,  civilian  as  well  as  military.  Surely  they  never  talked  about 
ideal  sewers,  or  entrenchments  that  only  seemed  to  be  different,  but  were  in 
accord  with  natural  law  identical,  did  they?  The  answer  here,  I  should  think, 
would  be,  first,  that  the  Romans  did  succeed  in  keeping  the  practical  and  the 
ideal  nicely  separated,  a  separation  made  easier,  perhaps,  by  the  fact  that 
the  ideal  was  imported  from  the  Greeks.  The  later  Romans  who  wrote  on 
practical  matters,  Pliny,  Varro,  and  the  rest,  do  not  attempt  to  philosophize 
abstractly  about  farming,  stock  raising,  estate  management.  Again,  there 
lingered  in  their  education  much  of  the  old  Greek  feeling  about  banausia; 
technical  skills,  even  engineering  skills,  were  certainly  necessary  to  the 
gentleman-officer.  But  he  learned  them  by  apprenticeship  and  practice,  not  in 
formal  schooling.  Civilian  engineering  seems  generally  to  have  been  the  work 
of  craftsmen  of  great  skill,  but  not  members  of  the  ruling  classes.  This  sepa- 
ration of  the  real  and  the  ideal  is  no  hypocrisy;  it  is  merely  a  habit,  a  consola- 
tion. Here,  as  so  often,  Marcus  Aurelius,  fighting  the  Marcomanni  on  this 
earth,  meditating  eternal  peace  in  the  next,  is  typical  enough. 

Epicureanism  may  seem  to  the  determinedly  pragmatic  mind  to  counsel 
in  real  life  much  that  Stoicism  counsels,  indeed  "to  come  out  at"  much  the 
same  thing.  Epicurean  apraxia  (aarpa&a)9  "not  acting,"  like  Stoic  ataraxia, 
was  a  withdrawal  from  the  petty  struggles  of  an  active  life,  the  attainment  of 
a  balanced  serenity,  but  still  no  full  retreat  into  seclusion.  Epicurus  and  his 
followers  did,  however,  insist  on  a  "materialist"  cosmology,  and  they  did  use 


The  Greco-Roman  World 

that  dangerous  word  "pleasure"  (^SovjJ,  hedone,  whence  hedonism)  to  de- 
scribe the  good  life.  In  vain — and  this  is  clear  in  the  few  fragments  we  have 
from  Epicurus  himself — did  they  protest  that  true  pleasure  is  not  swinish 
behavior,  not  the  coarse  indulgence  of  the  senses,  but  quite  the  opposite,  the 
difficult  mastery  of  the  low  senses  by  the  higher  ones,  and  the  cultivation  of 
the  higher  arts — not  so  much  self-indulgence  as  self-denial.  At  the  very  least, 
this  is  the  Aristotelian  ethics  of  the  Golden  Mean;  but  in  keeping  with  the 
general  high  seriousness  of  Hellenistic  and  later  Roman  ethical  thinking,  and 
with  the  pessimism  common  among  intellectuals  of  these  centuries,  Epicu- 
reanism developed  into  a  most  austere  and  existentialist  ethics.  Its  best  repre- 
sentative is  the  Roman  Lucretius  of  the  last  years  of  the  Republic,  whose  long 
philosophical  poem  On  the  Nature  of  Things  must  owe  its  preservation  in 
part  to  the  admiration  even  his  religious  and  philosophical  opponents  have 
felt  for  it.  Indeed,  after  two  thousand  years,  no  one  has  yet  succeeded  in 
investing  the  bleak  world  view  of  atomistic  materialism  and  rationalist  resig- 
nation in  the  face  of  necessity  with  the  emotions  appropriate  to  the  religious 
spirit  as  does  Lucretius.  The  poem  has  remained  a  consolation,  a  sursum 
corda,  to  many  a  rebel  against  conventional  Christianity  in  the  modern  world. 
Yet  the  old  tag  "a  hog  from  Epicurus's  sty"  has  stuck  to  Epicureanism 
and  to  hedonistic  ethical  systems  of  all  kinds  ever  since — even,  to  the  despair 
of  the  least  sensual  and  sensuous  of  thinkers,  John  Stuart  Mill,  to  the  Eng- 
lish Utilitarianism  of  the  eighteenth  and  nineteenth  centuries.21  No  doubt 
Lucretius  is  a  most  stoical  Epicurean,  far  out  toward  the  immaterial,  the 
spiritual,  on  the  spectrum  of  definitions  of  "pleasure";  there  is  no  doubt  in 
the  balance  that  conventional  Epicureanism  did  lean  toward  a  softer  life, 
toward  abandonment  of  the  struggle  with  himself  that  the  Stoic  so  enjoyed. 
Still,  the  historian  of  morals  must  record  that  the  bitterness  of  the  attacks  on 
the  preachers  of  swinish  self-indulgence  who  set  up  pleasure  as  an  ethical 
standard  seems,  in  view  of  the  most  unswinish  nature  of  the  pleasure  most 
ethical  hedonists  preach,  to  be  most  unjust.  It  is,  however,  not  unreasonable, 
for  ethics  even  more  than  other  branches  of  formal  philosophy  does  seep 
down  to  the  average  educated  person;  and  "pleasure"  in  all  our  Western 
tongues  does  to  the  unreflective  mean  .  .  .  well,  something  closer  to  what 
"immoral"  means  to  him  than  what  "moral"  does.  We  must  return  later  to 
this  obvious  theme  that  our  supposedly  materialistic  and  practical  West  has 
never  widely  professed  a  purely  hedonistic  ethics. 

21  Horace,  "Epicuri  de  grege  porous,"  in  Epistolae,  Book  I,  No.  4,  line  16.  This  light- 
hearted  piece  of  irony  has  been  taken  in  earnest. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

Still  another  current  of  Greco-Roman  thought  mingled  with  Stoicism 
and  Epicureanism  in  various  ways,  and  contributed  to  the  world  view  of 
these  centuries.  For  this  current  the  best  word  is  still  "rationalism."  It  is  a 
current  clear  in  what  we  know  of  the  earlier  Sophists,  but  in  the  Greco- 
Roman  world  this  current  developed  to  a  point  as  extreme  as  any  it  has  yet 
reached.  The  rationalist  must  always  admit  that  some  men — indeed,  he 
usually  thinks  that  most  men — sometimes  behave  irrationally,  do  things 
that  reason  can  show  will  not  in  fact  attain  the  end  the  doer  aims  at,  give 
reasons  for  acts  that  are  not  real  reasons,  believe  in  the  existence  of  super- 
natural beings  reason  shows  cannot  exist,  and  so  on;  but  the  rationalist  also 
holds  that  there  is  always  a  rational  explanation  for  the  irrational,  that  he 
can  correct  and  ultimately  eliminate  the  irrational,  at  least  among  the 
enlightened  few.  These  Greco-Roman  times  produced  a  characteristic  figure 
of  this  sort,  one  whose  name  still  sticks  to  the  effort  to  root  the  unreasonable 
in  reason,  or,  at  least,  given  early  ignorance,  in  a  "reasonable"  error* 
Euhemerus,  a  Greek  who  flourished  at  the  beginning  of  the  third  century  B.C., 
sought  systematically  to  explain  the  gods  and  goddesses  of  the  Olympic  pan- 
theon as  heroes  and  heroines  of  olden  times  transmuted  into  supernatural 
beings  by  folk  imagination.  We  have  only  the  barest  fragments  of  his  work, 
but  his  reputation  grew,  and  the  term  "euhemerism"  is  still  used  for  the  effort 
to  explain  mythologies  by  naturalistic-historical  methods  at  their  simplest.  It 
is  a  method  that  tends  to  be  revived  in  any  rationalistic  era;  many  philosopher 
in  the  eighteenth  century  simply  could  not  believe  that  those  admirable 
unprejudiced  Greeks  and  Romans,  happily  free  from  the  superstitions  of 
Christianity,  could  have  had  their  own  superstitions  and  irrationalities,  save  as 
heirs  of  sensible  but  uninformed  "primitive"  ancestors.22 

These  rationalists  occasionally  express  clearly  another  position  that  recurs 
in  the  eighteenth  century,  the  view  that  for  the  unenlightened  masses  atheism 
is  a  dangerous  thing,  since  they  need  the  moral  policing  religion,  in  spite  of 
its  superstitions,  gives  them.  Strabo  observes  that 

It  is  impossible  to  lead  the  mass  of  women  and  the  common  people  generally  to 
piety,  holiness  and  faith  simply  by  philosophical  teaching;  the  fear  of  God  is  also 
required,  not  omitting  legends  and  miraculous  stories.23 

You  will  note  here  the  implication  that  women  even  in  the  privileged  classes 

22  On  this  see  the  forthcoming  The  Eighteenth  Century  Confronts  the  Gods  by  Frank  E. 
Manuel,  Cambridge,  Mass  ,  Harvard  University  Press,  1959. 

23  Strabo,  quoted  in  L.  Friedlander,  Roman  Life  and  Manners  under  the  Early  Em- 
pire, Vol.  Ill,  trans,  by  J.  H.  Freese,  London,  Routledge,  1909,  p.  85. 


The  Greco-Roman  World 

are  not  to  be  trusted  as  rational  creatures.  This  is  one  of  the  constants  of  West- 
ern culture,  certainly  not  weakened  by  the  advent  of  Christianity,  and  not 
unknown  even  in  our  own  day. 

Rationalism  turned  on  the  dissection  of  the  classical  pantheon  becomes 
religious  skepticism — not,  be  it  noted,  necessarily  full  philosophical  skep- 
ticism. The  controlled,  or  incomplete,  rationalism  of  the  Socratic  tradition 
rejects  the  anthropomorphic  gods  of  Olympus  but  insists  on  a  spiritual  reality 
superior  to  this  world  of  the  flesh  and  the  senses,  and  not  to  be  approached 
by  mere  prudential  and  instrumental  thinking.  There  is  a  strong  strain  of  this 
pagan  monotheism — its  god  is  a  bit  less  remote  than  the  god  of  eighteenth- 
century  deism — in  so  representative  a  man  as  Plutarch.24 

The  Epicureans  took  another  and  more  clearly  deistic  tack.  This  is  the 
position,  eloquently  put  by  Lucretius,  that  the  gods  are  indifferent  to  the  fate 
of  mankind.  A  fragment  of  an  early  Latin  poet,  Ennius,  puts  very  clearly  the 
basis  of  this  distrust  in  a  simple  question  of  theodicy:  the  gods  cannot  care 
about  men,  for  if  they  did  the  good  man  would  be  happy  and  prosper,  the  bad 
man  unhappy  and  fail,  which  is  not  so.25 

It  is  not  far  from  this  grave  doubt  to  lighthearted  doubt,  or  at  least  to 
whistling  in  the  dark.  We  have  from  the  second  century  A.D.  abundant  writings 
of  a  Greek  rhetorician,  satirist,  and  popular  lecturer,  Lucian  of  Samosata.  It 
is  certain  from  these  writings  that  Lucian  was  very  clever,  very  gifted  verbally, 
and  that  he  was  fully  aware,  as  most  of  his  sort  are,  that  the  clever  rarely  are 
entrusted  with  the  work  of  the  world,  even  though  they  know  so  well  how  to 
do  it.  What  is  not  at  all  clear,  since  we  know  little  in  detail  of  his  life,  is 
whether  he  accepted  this  badly  run  world  or  rejected  it.  He  has  been  compared 
to  Swift,  a  superficial  comparison  indeed,  for  there  is  little  trace  in  Lucian  of 
the  moral  horror  Swift  has  for  the  world.  He  is  at  least  as  witty  as  Voltaire, 
and  more  fanciful,  but  it  is  hard  to  thinV  of  Lucian  fighting  for  the  rehabilita- 
tion of  a  Galas.  You  can  argue  that  Lucian  was  just  a  good  entertainer,  that 
the  spectacle  of  human  folly  amused  rather  than  outraged  or  elevated  him. 
He  is  certainly  irreverent.  One  of  his  dialogues,  "Zeus  Cross-examined,"  is 
a  fine  sample  of  the  lighthearted  rationalist  playing  with  some  old  metaphys- 
ical problems.  The  central  issue  is  one  familiar  to  Christians:  how  to  reconcile 
determinism  with  any  system  of  rewards  and  punishment  for  human  exercise 

24  For  example,  Plutarch's  Moralia,  De  Iside  et  Osiride,  78. 

25  Nam  si  curent,  bene  bonis  sit,  male  malis,  quod  non  est.  Quoted  in  Albert  Grenier, 
The  Roman  Spirit  in  Religion,  Thought,  and  Art,  London,  Kegan  Paul,  Trench,  Trub- 
ner,  1926,  p.  125. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

of  free  will.  Zeus  grants  the  difficulty  at  once,  but  he  will  by  no  means  give 
up  determinism.  The  dialogue  is  bright  and  charming,  more  like  the  work 
of  a  Diderot  than  a  Voltaire,  and  most  reminiscent  of  the  French  eighteenth 
century.  Lucian  was  much  surer  that  God  and  the  gods  were  dead  even  for 
the  mass  of  mankind  than  the  philosophes  could  be.  In  "Timon  the  Misan- 
thrope" he  has  Timon  act,  one  guesses,  as  his  own  mouthpiece  in  addressing 

Mankind  pays  you  the  natural  wages  of  your  laziness;  if  anyone  offers  you  a  victim 
or  a  garland  nowadays  it  is  only  at  Olympia  as  a  perfunctory  accompaniment  of 
the  games;  he  does  it  not  because  he  thinks  it  is  any  good,  but  because  he  may  as 
well  keep  up  an  old  custom.26 

The  most  difficult  problem  Lucian  presents  to  the  historian  of  morals  is 
this:  How  far  does  he  represent  a  state  of  mind  common  to  at  least  an  impor- 
tant minority  in  his  world?  Lucian  does  not  urge  his  listeners  to  go  out  and 
lead  immoral  lives — immoral  by  the  relatively  constant  standards  of  Western 
ethics.  But  he  does  not  preach,  and  he  does  report  without  censoring  it  directly 
an  immense  amount  of  trickery,  backbiting,  pretense,  irresponsibility,  down- 
right vice  and  evil.  There  is  a  quality  in  Lucian  that  must  seem  to  the  very 
serious-minded  moralist  about  as  repugnant  as  any  human  attitude  can  be, 
actual  amusement  over  the  spectacle  of  human  wickedness.  And  it  would 
seem  that  a  society  wholly  composed  of  Lucians  would  be  at  least  as  bad 
as  a  society  wholly  composed  of  Messalinas,  and,  fortunately  perhaps,  even 
more  impossible.  But  the  historian  of  morals,  in  contrast  to  the  moralist,  can 
hardly  entertain  such  hypotheses.  Lucians  did  not  exist  in  large  numbers. 
Lucian  himself  was  certainly  listened  to,  supported,  but  by  a  fashionable 
minority  of  intellectuals  and  would-be  intellectuals.  He  is,  granted,  inconceiv- 
able in  early  republican  Rome,  in  Judaea  at  any  time;  the  Victorians  had  their 
doubts  about  him.  There  is  a  problem,  to  which  we  must  return  in  a  final 
chapter,  of  the  relation  between  fashionable  skepticism,  devotion  to  the 
clever  and  the  cutting,  contempt  for  conventional  morality  as  dull,  and  so  on, 
and  the  morale  of  a  whole  society,  its  ability  to  keep  on  going.  Here  we  may 
note  that  the  popularity  of  Lucian  and  his  like  is  an  indication  that  some  part  of 
the  literate  classes  of  the  Roman  Empire  at  its  height  did  admire  fashionable 
cleverness  and  a  degree  of  skepticism.27 

26  Lucian,  Works,  trans,  by  H.  W.  and  F.  G.  Fowler,  Oxford,  Oxford  University  Press, 
1905,  Vol.  I,  p.  32. 

27  A  minor  problem  from  our  point  of  view,  but  an  interesting  one,  is  set  by  the  very 
survival  of  the  manuscripts  of  Lucian's  work  He  should  have  been  about  as  objec- 
tionable to  the  early  Christians  as  any  pagan  author.  One  suspects  that  at  crucial  points 


The  Greco-Roman  World 

We  have  already  noted,  however,  that  probably  even  more  of  these  literate 
classes  of  the  Empire  were  high-minded  Stoics,  serious  men  who  took  their 
responsibilities  seriously.  There  are  even  signs  of  a  continuing  pagan  ortho- 
doxy, no  doubt  on  the  defensive,  but  not  despairingly  so.  The  minor  historian 
and  moralist  Aelian,  who  flourished  in  the  early  third  century  A.D.,  finds  even 
the  philosophers  of  virtue  dangerous,  and  believes  the  old  gods  are  still  good 
gods.  He  tells  the  exemplary  story  of  Euphronius,  who  did  not  believe  in  the 
gods,  but  who,  having  fallen  seriously  ill,  dreamed  that  he  must  burn  the 
writings  of  Epicurus,  knead  the  ashes  with  wax,  and  apply  the  whole  as  a 
poultice  to  his  belly  in  order  to  recover.  He  was  so  impressed  with  this  dream 
that  he  became  a  pious  believer  and  a  good  influence  forevennore.  In  a  pas- 
sage in  his  Various  History,  Aelian  "praises  the  barbarians,  who  have  not 
become  alienated  from  the  faith  by  excessive  education  like  the  Greeks; 
amongst  the  Indians,  Celts  and  Egyptians  there  are  no  atheists  like  Euhe- 
merus,  Epicurus,  and  Diagoras."28 

Finally,  there  were  in  this  One  World  of  the  Empire  a  very  great  many 
pagan  cults  and  beliefs,  surviving  forms  of  the  older  pagan  mysteries,  impor- 
tations of  sacramental  faiths  from  Egypt,  Syria,  Persia,  and,  of  course,  the 
rising  Christian  faith.  Among  the  intellectuals  for  whom  Stoicism  was  too 
austere,  rationalism  and  skepticism  quite  unsuitable,  there  flourished  an 
elaborate  amalgame  of  philosophy  and  theology  known  as  Neoplatonism,  of 
which  the  chief  exponent  was  the  third-century  Greek  writer  Plotinus.  We  can- 
not here  possibly  go  into  the  twists  and  turnings  of  this  very  cerebral  set  of  be- 
liefs, which,  as  Gnosticism,  once  threatened  to  take  over  Christianity.  It  is 
otherworldly,  mystic,  eternity-seeking,  but  also  very  verbal,  and,  in  the  primary 
sense  of  an  overworked  word,  sophisticated.  Its  adepts,  whatever  else  they 
may  have  been,  were  certainly  no  skeptics,  no  materialists.  We  have  no  evi- 
dence that  they  led  low  lives  of  self-indulgence;  but  we  have  no  evidence  that 
they  led  simple  lives  of  altruistic  devotion.  The  odds  are  firmly  against  the 
latter.  They  seem  to  have  been  few  in  numbers,  but  most  articulate.  Some  of 
them  were  certainly  charlatans,  exploiting  the  need  of  a  privileged  and  edu- 

in  the  lives  of  various  manuscripts  some  of  the  good  Christian  fathers  yielded  to  the 
temptation  to  play  with  the  forbidden  Also,  of  course,  Lucian  made  formal  pagan 
religious  beliefs  ridiculous  indeed.  The  historian  will  note  that  W.  H.  Auden  in  his 
Portable  Greek  Reader  refuses  to  include  any  Lucian  in  his  anthology,  on  the  grounds 
that  Lucian  is  not  fit  reading  for  us  today,  "haunted  by  devils"  as  we  are.  See  his 
comment  in  his  preface,  p.  7. 

28  L.  Friedlander,  Roman  Life  and  Manners,  Vol.  HI,  pp.  97-99.  Aelian's  own  words 
are:  He  told  all  that  he  had  heard  to  his  nearest  relatives,  who  were  full  of  joy,  be- 
cause he  had  not  been  rejected  with  contempt  by  the  god.  Thus  the  atheist  was  con- 
verted and  was  ever  afterwards  a  model  of  piety  for  others. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

:ated  but  often  idle  and  irresponsible  upper  class  for  a  faith,  an  interesting 
aith,  a  privileged  faith,  and  one  that  does  not  demand  much  real  or  symbolic 
jweat  or  worry — a  theosophy,  in  short.  Lucian  has  fun  with  them,  a  fun  that 
jeems  for  him  almost  bitter.  In  his  "Sale  of  Creeds,"  Hermes  as  auctioneer 
)uts  up  for  sale  "Pythagoreanism" — Pythagoras  was  the  pre-Socratic  founder 
rf  the  first  of  these  sects  of  illuminati  and  long  a  good  butt  for  common  sense 
—and  goes  into  his  spiel: 

"•low  here  is  a  creed  of  the  first  water.  Who  bids  for  this  handsome  article?  What 
gentleman  says  Superhumanity?  Harmony  of  the  Universe!  Transmigration  of 
iouls!  Who  bids?29 

Yet  out  of  all  this  welter  of  beliefs — among  which,  as  I  have  insisted,  it 
seems  fair  to  conclude  that  a  kind  of  moderate  Stoicism  was  in  fact  the 
accepted  faith  of  the  great  majority  of  the  working  ruling  classes  of  the  Empire 
right  down  to  the  end — a  history  of  Western  morals  must  emphasize  the  ripen- 
ing of  a  way  of  thinking  about  ethical  problems  that  transcends  the  actual 
specific  content  of  these  many  creeds.  Here  there  comes  out  fully  what  had 
been  begun  far  back  in  Ionia,  the  concepts  of  nature,  of  natural  law,  and  of 
human  nature,  concepts  in  which  the  "is"  and  the  "ought,"  the  descriptive,  the 
explanatory,  and  the  evaluative  are  mingled — it  is  not  unfair  to  say,  often 
confused — in  a  characteristic  Western  manner.  The  "natural"  is,  in  this 
classical  tradition  (definitely  not  in  the  romantic  tradition),  what  the  cor- 
rectly thinking  thinker  discovers  as  the  uniform  element  in  the  apparently 
diverse  and  changing  phenomena  which  his  sense  experience,  as  organized  by 
unthinking  common  sense  and  habit  ("conditioning"),  presents  to  him.  The 
natural  is  thus  the  regular,  the  predictable,  in  contrast  to  the  sporadic  inter- 
vention of  an  unpredictable  supernatural.  Thunder  is  natural,  the  result  of  the 
working  out  of  regular  meteorological  forces;  Zeus  hurling  his  thunderbolts 
when  the  mood  strikes  him  is  unnatural,  and  in  fact  nonexistent,  a  "myth." 
The  specific  prescriptions  and  penalties  in  actual  law  vary  from  people  to 
people,  in  earlier  days  from  town  to  town;  but  the  student  of  jurisprudence 
who  will  examine  with  this  tool  of  rational  analysis  which  is  his  mind  these 
diverse  laws  will  be  able  to  classify  them  in  accordance  with  what  they  have 
in  common.  He  will  note  that  for  a  valid  contract  there  will  be  certain  minimal 
requirements  everywhere;  he  will  thus  arrive  at  the  concept  of  a  universal  law, 
the  law  of  nature.  Finally,  the  man  who  simply  looks  at  his  fellows  in  the  street 
without  thinking  will  see  them  as  so  many  separate  individual  beings,  tall  and 
short,  handsome  and  ugly,  Roman  and  Syrian,  slave  and  free,  and  so  on 
2&  Lucian,  Works,  Fowler  trans.  Vol.  I,  p.  190. 


The  Greco-Roman  World 

indefinitely;  the  thinker  will  see  in  these  varied  individuals  man,  the  human 
being  who  is  everywhere  the  same  beneath  these  apparent  differences. 

This  last  statement  may  be  misleading.  The  familiar  statement  that  human 
nature  is  everywhere  the  same  did  not  mean  to  the  Stoics  and  the  other  think- 
ers of  the  Empire  that  differences  in  individuals — say,  in  bodily  build  or  in 
disposition  or  temper — are  nonexistent,  but,  rather,  that  they  do  not  exhaust 
what  can  be  said  about  human  beings;  from  their  point  of  view  it  was  even 
more  important  to  note  that  there  are  limits  to  the  range  of  variation  in 
individuals,  that  all  have  certain  minimal  bodily  functions  in  common,  fhat 
all  have  minimal  spiritual  characteristics  in  common.  What  is  in  common,  the 
regularities  and  the  uniformities  that  the  discerning  mind  sees  are  not  just 
what  we  should  call  statistical  averages,  any  more  than  the  Aristotelian 
Golden  Mean  is  a  statistical  average  or  mean.  The  regularities  are  nature's 
plan,  what  men  ought  to  be. 

By  an  easy  transition  the  man  thinking  along  such  lines  slips  from  analysis, 
classification,  the  search  for  uniformities  that  will  allow  prediction,  into 
moral  purposiveness,  into  a  search  for  uniformities  that  will  provide  goals 
toward  which  other  men  can  be  persuaded,  or  forced,  to  strive  to  mold  their 
conduct.  In  the  purest  tradition  of  modern  natural  science  this  transition  is  a 
kind  of  betrayal,  a  piece  of  intellectual  dishonesty.  To  the  historian,  it  is  one 
of  the  abiding  ways  Western  men  think  and  feel,  which  in  practice  has  proved 
to  be  an  effective  means  of  changing,  above  all,  of  widening,  the  economic, 
social,  and  political  organizations  in  which  men  live.  This  paradoxical  use  of 
the  concept  of  Nature  as  what  ought  to  be  so  as  to  bring  about  changes  in  the 
unnaturally  natural  of  the  given  moment  has  really  worked.  Remote  as  some 
of  the  more  extreme  and  abstract  concepts  of  what  this  Nature,  and  human 
nature,  were — those  of  the  Stoics,  for  instance,  or  those  of  the  eighteenth- 
century  philosophes — from  the  "facts  of  life,"  there  remained  this  curious 
intellectual  and,  therefore,  moral  link  with  these  same  facts,  an  inescapable 
link.  The  classical  tradition  of  "reason"  has  never  quite  been  able  to  deny, 
escape,  transcend,  suppress  the  vulgar  here,  now,  and  imperfect.  Even  Plato 
is  not  a  very  good  mystic,  not  in  the  sense  that  St.  Teresa  or  St.  John  of  the 
Cross  are  good  mystics;  Plato  cannot  help  arguing. 

It  is  this  never-quite-severed  Greco-Roman  link  with  the  world  of  our 
sense  experience — shall  we  say,  the  "minimally  organized  world" — that  makes 
the  real  basis  for  the  commonly  exaggerated  distinction  between  the  He- 
braic and  the  Hellenic  in  our  Western  moral  and  intellectual  tradition.  Mr. 
W.  T.  Stace,  as  I  have  noted  above  (Chapter  in,  p.  56)  puts  the  distinction 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

in  morals  as  one  between  a  Hebrew  imposed  code  and  a  Greek  immanent 
one,  a  Hebrew  supernatural  and  authoritarian  source  and  sanction  for  morals, 
a  Greek  source  and  sanction  flowing  from  within  human  beings,  inside  human 
"nature."  Now  the  Nature  that  advised  Cicero  or  Seneca  seems  to  me  about 
as  remote  from  this  world  as  the  God  that  commanded  Moses  and  David,  and 
actually  rather  more  remote  than  the  God  that  inspired  Isaiah.  No  doubt 
Spengler  is  giving  way  to  his  anger  against  the  classical  tradition  when  he 
writes  that  "Nature  [the  concept  of  nature]  is  a  function  of  the  particular 
Culture."30  Still,  the  curiously  hypostatized  concept  of  nature  as  moderation, 
regularity,  order,  decency — the  list  could  be  long,  scandalously  not  composed 
of  logical  synonyms,  but  with  a  strongly  consistent  affective  tone — the  con- 
cept of  nature  which  gets  fully  developed  in  the  later  Empire  can  hardly  seem 
to  most  of  us  today  to  describe,  let  alone  flow  "immanently"  from,  nature 
as  it  appears  in  geophysics,  meteorology,  biology,  or  human  nature  as  it  ap- 
pears in  formal  psychological  studies. 

Such  a  Nature  as  that  of  Cicero  or  Seneca  must  seem  rather  the  ideal  of  a 
privileged  class  in  a  culture  that  no  longer  sought  to  apply  its  ideals  to  all  of 
its  members.  It  is  an  ideal  that  still  attracts,  perhaps  because  it  is  at  least  as 
unattainable  and,  therefore,  attractive  to  Western  man  as  any  boundless  de- 
sire. Martial,  whose  life,  to  judge  from  most  of  his  poetry,  did  not  much 
resemble  the  ideal,  has  left  a  fine  statement  of  it. 

Martial,  the  things  for  to  attain 
The  happy  life  be  these,  I  find: 
The  riches  left,  not  got  with  pain; 
The  fruitful  ground;  the  quiet  mind; 
The  equal  friend;  no  grudge,  nor  strife; 
No  charge  of  rule  nor  governance; 
Without  disease,  the  healthful  life; 
The  household  of  continuance; 
The  mean  diet,  no  delicate  fare; 
Wisdom  joined  with  simplicity; 
The  night  discharged,  of  all  care, 
Where  wine  may  bear  no  sovereignty; 
The  chaste  wife,  wise,  without  debate; 
Such  sleeps  as  may  beguile  the  night; 
Contented  with  thine  own  estate, 
Neither  wish  death,  nor  fear  his  might.31 

3°  Spengler,  Decline  of  the  West,  Vol.  I,  p.  169. 

3i  Martial,  Book  X,  No.  47.  This  poem  of  Martial's  has  been  often  translated.  I  give 

in  modern  spelling  that  of  the  sixteenth-century  Henry  Howard,  Earl  of  Surrey.  The 


The  Greco-Roman  World 

All  told,  we  know  quite  a  bit  about  the  condition  of  the  masses,  the  common 
people,  of  the  One  World  of  the  Roman  Empire.  We  do  not  by  any  means 
know  enough  to  risk  comments  on  the  general  level  of  sobriety,  of  steady  ways, 
of  chastity  in  contrast  to  the  more  lurid  vices  in  all  parts  of  this  great  territory. 
We  may  believe  that  the  country  folk  were  simpler,  perhaps  more  honest, 
though  probably  not  much  more  chaste,  than  the  city  folk.  Such,  at  least,  was 
the  common  belief  of  most  intellectuals  of  the  time,  as  it  was  to  be  at  later 
periods  of  European  cultural  life  when  great  cities  give  the  moralist  something 
to  complain  about.  But  at  least  for  Rome  we  have  evidence  that  here  were 
some  million  human  beings  living,  on  the  whole,  in  one  of  the  moral  troughs 
of  Western  history. 

More  particularly,  we  know  a  great  deal  about  one  of  the  pursuits  of  the 
urban  masses  that  has  almost  always  shocked  later  commentators — the  glad- 
iatorial games.  It  should  be  clear  that  we  are  here  dealing  with  a  special  and 
peculiar  phase  of  moral  history,  a  case,  like  that  of  Greek  pederasty  in  the 
Great  Age,  not  a  common  phase  of  human  moral  development.  There  are 
recurring  examples  of  crowds  of  men  and  women  witnessing  with  interest  and 
pleasure  the  physical  suffering  of  their  fellows.  The  histories  all  bring  out  the 
hangings  at  Tyburn  in  London  right  down  almost  to  Victorian  times;  Huizinga 
devotes  a  whole  chapter  to  the  fascination  people  in  the  Middle  Ages  felt  for 
the  spectacle  of  human  suffering.32  But  these  are  relatively  sporadic  and  iso- 
lated instances,  not  organized  and  regular  mass  displays  for  public  amuse- 

reader  may  be  amused  to  see  what  the  twentieth  century  makes  of  it  Here  is  Mr. 
Gilbert  Highet: 

To  bring  yourself  to  be  happy 

Acquire  the  following  blessings: 

A  nice  inherited  income, 

A  kindly  farm  with  a  kitchen, 

No  business  worries  or  lawsuits, 

Good  health,  a  gentleman's  muscles, 

A  wise  simplicity,  friendships, 

A  plain  but  generous  table, 

Your  evenings  sober  but  jolly, 

Your  bed  amusing  but  modest, 

And  nights  that  pass  in  a  moment; 

To  be  yourself  without  envy, 

To  fear  not  death,  nor  to  wish  it. 

Latin  Poetry  in  Verse  Translation,  ed.  by  L.  R.  Lind,  Boston,  Houghton  Miffim,  1957. 

pp.  272-273. 

32  J.  Huizinga,  Waning  of  the  Middle  Ages,  London,  Arnold,  1927,  Chap.  I. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

ment,  as  at  Rome.  And  such  horrors  as  the  French  Reign  of  Terror,  the 
mass  murders  by  the  Nazis,  those  of  the  Yezhov  period  in  Russia,  are 
obviously  very  different  things  indeed,  in  no  sense  part  of  the  daily  delights 
of  their  participants.  The  Spanish  bullfight  of  our  own  day  does  have  its  anal- 
ogies with  the  Roman  games;  automobile  racing  probably  holds  some  of  its 
fans  by  the  attractive  possibility  of  witnessing  sudden  death.  Let  us  content 
ourselves  with  observing  that  in  the  West  there  seem  always  to  be  numbers 
of  people  who  do  not  find  it  repugnant  to  witness  the  public  display  of 
cruelty  to  men  and  animals,  or  at  least  to  await  the  dramatic  possibility  of 
violence.  The  fact  remains  that  only  in  Rome  has  this  been  an  organized  and 
widely  approved  public  pursuit.  Undergraduate  American  editorials  that 
equate  our  football  with  the  gladiatorial  games  are  wide  of  the  mark. 

The  shows  were  many  and  varied.  The  bloodiest  were  the  various  forms 
of  individual  and  group  combats  to  the  death,  and  the  combats  between 
beasts  and  men  and  among  beasts,  Mercy  could  be  shown,  as  we  all  know, 
for  a  beaten  fighter  who  put  up  a  good  show;  but  "thumbs  up"  could  hardly 
apply  to  mass  combats,  and  there  is  no  evidence  that  the  Roman  crowd  was 
a  kindly  one.  Even  where  blood  was  not  deliberately  planned  to  flow,  the 
circuses,  the  chariot  races,  the  spectacles  were  expensive,  full  of  accidental 
violence,  and  by  no  means  demanding  on  intellect  or  taste.  Rome  with  its  great 
Colosseum  and  its  Circus  set  the  pace,  but  in  the  West  of  the  Empire,  at 
least,  the  provincial  centers  aped  the  metropolis,  though  they  could  not  afford 
the  lavishness  of  display  and  bloodshed  the  emperors  and  other  donors  felt 
obliged  to  give  the  Romans.  Crowds  were  large  even  by  our  modern  standards; 
the  Colosseum  held  about  45,000  spectators. 

The  games  are  by  no  means  without  precedent  in  earlier  Roman  history. 
Though  bigger  and  better  after  Augustus,  they  go  back  to  republican  days, 
before  Rome  was  a  world  power.  The  first  triple  duel  among  gladiators  on 
record  was  in  264  B.C.;  there  had  been  single  fights  earlier.  The  fights  do  seem 
to  go  with  the  Roman  character  or  disposition.  Another  modern  notion  about 
the  games  is  wrong:  the  crowds  were  by  no  means  limited  to  the  lower  classes. 
Many  of  the  emperors  enjoyed  the  games;  others  came  even  if  they  did  not 
enjoy  them,  because  they  were  part  of  the  ceremonial  and  ritual  that  symbol- 
ized the  Empire.  The  people  expected  to  see  their  rulers  do  their  public  duty 
by  presiding  at  the  arena.  Many  individuals  among  the  upper  classes  clearly 
delighted  in  the  games,  followed  the  gladiators  and  the  charioteers  in  public 
eye,  mixed  with  them  socially,  kept  their  own  "stables,"  human  as  well  as 
animal,  behaved,  in  short,  about  mass  sports  as  the  nonintellectuals  of  West- 


The  Greco-Roman  World 

ern  aristocracies  generally  do  when  civilization  deprives  them  of  the  relaxa- 
tion of  serious  fighting.  The  world  of  the  arena  and  the  race  course  was  truly 
a  world  of  consuming  interest  for  all  sorts  of  Romans.  There  are  all  the  signs 
one  would  expect  to  find  in  mass  spectator-sport — statistics  of  records,  wor- 
ship of  the  successful  athletes,  wide  publicity.  At  Pompeii  some  of  the  in- 
formal transcriptions  found  scribbled  in  public  places  tell  us  the  Thracian 
Celadus,  probably  a  gladiator,  was  a  "man  the  girls  yearned  for";  an  inscrip- 
tion tells  us  that  Crescens,  a  Moor,  a  Blue  charioteer,  drove  a  four-in-hand 
at  the  age  of  thirteen,  and  between  A.D.  115  and  124  ran  686  races,  getting 
first  prize  forty-seven  times,  second,  130  times,  and  third,!  1 1  times,  winning, 
in  all,  1,588,346  sesterces.33  Martial  wrote,  perhaps  not  altogether  without 
the  intellectual's  envy  of  the  attention  the  athlete  gets,  an  epitaph  for  Scorpus, 
dying  young: 

I  am  that  Scorpus,  glory  of  the  shouting  circus,  thy  applauded  one,  Rome,  and 
brief  delight;  whom  a  jealous  fate  cut  off  at  thrice  nine  years,  believing,  having 
counted  my  victories,  that  I  was  already  an  old  man.34 

Juvenal  says  in  clear  indignation  that  a  successful  jockey  of  the  Red  gets 
a  hundred  times  what  an  advocate  gets.35 

The  Roman  stage  furnishes  another  example  of  a  decline  in  taste,  a 
vulgarization  as  its  audience  gets  increasingly  unable  to  discriminate  between 
the  amusing  and  the  titillating.  Terence  and  Plautus  wrote  plays  in  imitation 
of  Menander  and  other  Greek  playwrights  of  the  New  Comedy,  plays  in  which 
the  wit  is  partly,  at  least,  a  matter  for  the  mind.  By  imperial  times  what  takes 
place  on  the  Roman  stage  is  hardly  more  than  stylized  exhibition  of  mimes, 
often  very  obscene,  and  clearly  far  from  subtle  in  content,  though  the  art  of 
the  individual  actor  was  very  highly  developed.  The  people  of  the  stage,  like 
those  of  the  arena  and  the  circus,  were  interesting  and  enviable  persons  in  the 
eyes  of  the  urban  masses  and  of  many  of  their  patrician  hangers-on,  but  they 
were  definitely  not  respectable.  Indeed,  the  moral  disrepute  of  the  actor,  the 
professional  athlete,  the  denizen  of  the  underworld  of  amusement  is  first  clear 
in  the  West  in  this  Greco-Roman  society.  We  Westerners  admire,  envy,  and 
scorn  those  who  amuse  us,  as  we  admire  and  scorn  our  best  friend,  the  dog. 
This  worldly  underworld  of  the  Romans  is  a  vast  Bohemia,  as  yet  without 
romantic  overtones. 

33  L.  Friedlander,  Roman  Life  and  Manners,  Vol.  IT,  pp.  51,  23. 

34  Martial,  Book  X,  no.  53, 

35  Juvenal,  Satire  VH,  lines  112-114. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

Yet,  save  from  the  Christians,  there  is  not  much  vigorous  condemnation 
of  the  games.  There  is,  though,  not  much  defense  of  them  either.  Pliny  the 
Younger  has  a  famous  passage  in  his  panegyric  of  Trajan  in  praise  of  the 
contempt  for  death  the  spectacles  teach;  but  the  rhetoric  of  the  piece  makes 
it  hard  to  guess  whether  Pliny  really  thought  the  games  toughened  the  spec- 
tators up  in  good  Hemingway  style.36  But  for  the  most  part  what  strikes  one 
is  the  naturalness  with  which  the  games  were  taken.  Symmachus,  a  late  fourth- 
century  pagan  whose  contrived  letters  seem  by  no  means  those  of  a  harsh 
person,  reports  the  suicide  of  some  Saxons  he  was  having  groomed  to  fight 
in  the  arena;  he  clearly  is  very  sorry  for  himself,  but  not  at  all  for  the  Saxons.37 

The  Stoics  included  the  mob  in  that  world  they  sought  to  rise  above.  They 
were  no  crusaders;  they  were  willing  to  leave  the  populace  to  its  own  bad 
ways.  The  rulers  knew  they  had  to  provide  bread  and  the  circuses,  and  that  the 
circuses  were  more  necessary  than  bread.  Trajan,  writes  the  historian  Pronto, 
knew  that 

the  goodness  of  government  is  shown  both  in  its  earnest  aspects  and  its  amuse- 
ments; and  that  while  neglect  of  serious  business  was  harmful,  neglect  of  amuse- 
ments caused  discontent;  even  distributions  of  money  were  less  desired  than 
games;  further,  largesse  of  corn  and  money  pacified  only  a  few  or  even  individuals 
only,  but  games  the  whole  people.38 

The  world  of  the  Roman  Empire  was  a  varied,  lively,  interesting  world, 
not  very  sensitive,  not  at  all  simple,  from  which  the  anecdotist  can  draw  on 
a  vast  range  of  human  conduct.  Aulus  Gellius,  the  source  for  the  well-known 
tale  of  Androcles  and  the  lion,  finishes  his  story  with  a  touch  usually  omitted 
in  the  retelling:  Androcles,  manumitted  after  the  touching  episode  in  the 
arena,  went  the  rounds  of  the  taverns  leading  his  lion  by  a  leash;  the  cus- 
tomers threw  money  to  Androcles,  sprinkled  the  lion  with  flowers.39  St. 

3«  Pliny,  Panegyricus  Trajano,  Chap.  XXXm.  "You  [Trajan]  provided  a  spectacle,  not 

of  the  sort  that  softens  and  weakens  the  spirit  of  men,  but  that  serves  to  harden  men 

to  bear  noble  wounds  and  be  contemptuous  of  death."  That  pulchra  vulnera  is  quite 

untranslatable,  but  very  much  part  of  the  agon  of  a  noble  warrior  class.  It  just  does 

not  go  with  the  Roman  games  of  the  Empire,  where  the  wounds  must  have  been  most 


37  Epistolae,  Book  II,  46,  quoted  in  L.  Friedlander,  Roman  Life  and  Manners,  Vol. 

H,  p.  55. 

3SFronto,  Preamble  to  History,  quoted  and  translated  in  L.  Friedlander,  Roman  Life 

and  Manner st  Vol.  II,  p.  3.  See  the  Loeb  Classical  Library  edition  of  the  fragments  of 

Fronto,  trans,  by  C.  R.  Haines,  Cambridge,  Mass.,  Harvard  University  Press,  1955, 

Vol.  H,  p.  217. 

39  Aulus  Gellius,  Attic  Nights,  trans,  by  J.  C.  Rolfe,  London,  Heinemann,  1927,  in  Loeb 

Classical  Library,  Book  V,  14,  Vol.  I,  p.  427. 


The  Greco-Roman  World 

Augustine  reports,  on  the  authority  of  Seneca,  that  women  used  to  sit  on  th 
Capitoline  by  the  temple  of  Jupiter,  believing,  probably  on  the  strength  o 
dreams,  that  they  were  beloved  of  the  god.40  Suetonius  notes  that  each  spring 
after  the  death  of  Nero,  flowers  were  laid  by  an  unknown  hand  on  his  grave 
This  is  the  charisma  exercised  by  the  captivatingly  wicked;  one  suppose 
that  it  is  an  ever-present  element  in  Western  society,  but  clearly  it  is  usu 
ally  repressed  in  a  society  of  simple  ways — or  at  least,  in  such  societies 
the  wicked  are  Robin  Hoods,  not  Neros  or  Capones.41 

In  Rome  a  good  many  thousands  of  the  urban  proletariat  did  live  off  th< 
state  dole.  They  needed  the  circuses,  if  only  to  make  their  idleness  bearable 
and  they  seem  to  have  got  something  like  one  day  in  three  as  public  holidays 
They  certainly  did  not  make  a  sober,  steady,  soldierly  people;  they  were  no 
virtuous;  but  they  could  hardly  afford  the  expensive  vices  of  their  betters 
Theirs  was  no  doubt  the  short  and  simple  fornication  of  the  poor,  the  vicarioui 
satisfactions  of  the  arena,  the  stage,  the  spectacle  of  the  wickedness  of  thei 
rulers,  the  melodrama  of  high  imperial  politics.  The  masses  of  the  great  citie; 
of  the  East,  Antioch,  Alexandria,  and  the  rest,  were  probably  less  dependen 
on  state  handouts,  but  clearly  were  poor,  crowded,  restless,  and  aware  o 
their  plight.  Theirs  is  the  strange  world  of  superstitition,  vagabondage,  big 
city  fashionable  alertness,  and  moral  laxness  we  begin  to  get  glimpses  of  ii 
Hellenistic  times,  and  which  is  nicely  reflected  in  one  of  the  few  almost 
novels  we  have  from  antiquity,  the  Golden  Ass  of  Apuleius,  who  flourishec 
under  the  Antonines. 

And  always  there  was  slavery,  an  institution  to  which  even  the  triumphan 
Christianity  of  the  fourth  century  was  to  adapt  itself.  Slavery  in  the  Greco- 
Roman  world  was  not  by  any  means  throughout  a  harsh  and  thorough  sub- 
jection of  the  slave.  One  can  even  make  a  good  case  for  the  assertion  that  or 
the  whole  the  Greco-Roman  was  one  of  the  milder  forms  of  slavery.  Rank- 
and-file  prisoners  of  war,  often  forced  to  fight  against  hopeless  odds  in  the 
arena,  were  victims  of  the  violence  normal  to  the  West  throughout  most  of  ifc 
history.  Galley  slaves  had  an  especially  grueling  task.  Apuleius  has  a  grue- 

40  St.  Augustine,  City  of  God,  Book  VI,  Chap.  10.  "But  some  sit  there  that  think  Jov< 
is  in  love  with  them:  never  respecting  Juno's  poetically  supposed  terrible  aspect.** 

41  Suetonius,  Nero,  57,  quoted  in  Dill,  Roman  Society  from  Nero  to  Marcus  Aurelius 
p.  16.  Suetonius  says,  "Yet  there  were  some  who  for  a  long  time  decorated  his  tomt 
with  spring  and  summer  flowers.  .  .  ."  Some  gangsters  do  have  their  faithful  afte] 
death.  In  fact,  I  think  I  perhaps  have  underestimated  hi  the  text  the  strength  through 
out  Western  moral  history  of  a  folk  worship  of  the  exciting,  picturesque,  romanticallj 
wicked.  Not  only  in  the  United  States  of  the  1950's  have  the  Becks  and  the  Hoffas  beer 
heroes  to  their  followers. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

some  passage  about  some  unfortunate  slaves.42  And  W.  E.  H.  Lecky  writes 

numerous  acts  of  the  most  odious  barbarity  were  committed.  The  well-known 
anecdotes  of  Flaminius  ordering  a  slave  to  be  killed  to  gratify,  by  the  spectacle,  the 
curiosity  of  a  guest;  of  Vedius  Pollio  feeding  his  fish  on  the  flesh  of  slaves;  and  of 
Augustus  sentencing  a  slave,  who  had  killed  and  eaten  a  favorite  quail,  to  cruci- 
fixion, are  the  extreme  examples  that  are  recorded.  .  .  .  Ovid  and  Juvenal  de- 
scribe the  fierce  Roman  ladies  tearing  their  servants'  faces,  and  thrusting  the  long 
pins  of  their  brooches  into  their  flesh.43 

Yet  much  can  be  set  against  this  black  picture.  The  inscriptions  show 
many  instances  of  manumitted  slaves  who  did  well  in  craft  or  small  business, 
and  left  enough  to  get  proper  funeral  inscriptions.  Freedmen  rose  high  in 
the  service  of  the  emperors — scandalously  high  in  the  opinion  of  the  old 
Romans.  The  career  open  to  talents  was  not  shut  to  the  capable  slave,  for 
whom  his  handicap  could  sometimes  act  as  a  stimulus  in  competition.  No 
doubt  the  slaves  who  did  the  work  of  the  great  estates,  which,  especially  in 
Italy,  but  to  a  degree  elsewhere,  took  the  place  of  the  yeoman  farms  of  the 
early  Republic,  had  the  lot  usual  with  plantation  slaves.  The  bright  ones 
might  manage  to  get  into  the  household  of  the  master,  and  eventually  into 
the  city  and  on  the  road  to  manumission.  The  masses  of  the  slaves  were  at 
least  spared  the  worst  by  increasingly  great  legal  protection  from  bad  mas- 
ters, and  by  the  economic  good  sense  of  the  ordinary  master.  Varro,  a  conr 
temporary  of  Cicero,  who  wrote  on  agriculture,  has  much  to  say  on  the 
treatment  of  slaves.  He  sounds  very  sensible,  almost  as  if  he  had  studied 
nineteenth-century  economic  writings.  He  counsels  humane  treatment  on 
prudential  grounds,  and  advises  special  concern  to  encourage  efficient  fore- 
men, themselves  slaves,  by  "incentive  pay,"  possibility  of  eventual  freedom, 
and  so  on.44 

On  slavery  as  an  institution,  as  I  have  noted  briefly  above,  the  fashionable 
rationalist  philosophy  was  driven  to  the  conclusion  that  if  the  mind  finds  men 
equal,  it  can  hardly  find  slavery  natural.  Cicero,  Seneca,  and  many  others 
register  their  disapproval;  Epictetus,  himself  a  slave,  sounds  more  sincere: 

What  you  avoid  suffering  yourself,  seek  not  to  impose  on  others.  You  avoid 

42  Apuleius,  The  Golden  Ass,  DC,  12. 

43  History  of  European  Morals  from  Augustus  to  Charlemagne,  Vol.  I,  pp.  302-303. 

44  Varro,  Rerum  Rusticarum,  Vol.  I,  p.  17.  Lewis  and  Reinhold,  Roman  Civilisation, 
Vol.  I,  pp.  446-448.  On  legal  protection,  Westermarck,  Origin  and  Development  of 
the  Moral  Ideas,  Vol.  I,  pp.  691-692,  gives  many  examples. 


The  Greco-Roman  World 

slavery,  for  instance;  take  care  not  to  enslave.  For  if  you  can  bear  to  exact  slavery 
from  others,  you  appear  to  have  been  first  yourself  a  slave.45 

But  there  is  no  record  of  a  Roman  Society  for  the  Abolition  of  Slavery.  Of 
course,  in  the  bureaucratic  Empire  there  was  no  place  for  what  we  call  pres- 
sure groups.  Still,  the  protests  of  the  literary  and  the  philosophic  against 
slavery  seem  more  than  usually  remote  from  the  habits  and  conduct  of 
ordinary  men.  We  must  conclude  that  slavery  was  an  accepted  part  of  this 
great  society,  exhibiting  the  widest  range  from  cruelty  to  gentleness,  from 
economic  exploitation  to  legal  moderation,  and  from  melodramatic  gestures 
of  psychopathic  origin  to  the  daily  routines  of  convenience.  We  may  perhaps 
go  a  bit  further,  and  conclude  that  the  kind  of  anecdote  Lecky  has  culled  from 
the  sources  is  no  sounder  social  and  moral  history  than  any  other  case  history 
of  the  monstrous,  the  psychopathic. 

One  final  topic:  it  is  possible  for  the  later  Empire  to  list  for  the  first  time 
some  "intellectuals"  among  the  many,  if  not  quite  among  the  masses.  At  least, 
we  know  from  our  sources  that  there  was  a  relatively  large  public  for  whom, 
in  the  absence  of  a  printing  press  and  other  marvels  of  modern  mass  com- 
munication, there  existed  professional  lecturers,  schools  at  which  tuition  was 
paid,  and  which  indulged  in  a  certain  amount  of  what  we  call  adult  education 
— in  short,  a  public  with  leisure  enough  to  talk  about  "ideas."  This  public 
was  served  by  a  motley  group  of  rhetoricians  and  "philosophers"  who  have 
had  a  thoroughly  bad  press.  Some  of  them  do  smell  of  the  ancient  equivalent 
of  Grub  Street,  if  not  of  still  lower  reaches  of  ill-paid  masters  of  the  word. 
Lucian,  who  at  one  time  in  his  life  was  perhaps  one  of  these,  has  left  some 
very  stinging  satire  on  them.  They  numbered  charlatans,  poseurs,  hawkers  of 
all  sorts  of  salvation.  They  deliberately  made  themselves  up  as  philosophers. 
Epictetus,  a  true  blue  himself,  wrote  indignantly  of  these  pretenders: 

When  people  see  a  man  with  long  hair  and  a  coarse  cloak  behaving  in  an  un- 
seemingly  manner,  they  shout,  'Look  at  the  philosopher':  whereas  his  behavior 
should  rather  convince  them  that  he  is  no  philosopher.46 

Even  when  this  intellectual  life  was  not  downright  charlatanry,  it  was  pitched 
at  a  somewhat  low  level  of  casuistry.  Here  is  a  topic  on  which  the  young 
rhetoricians  exercised  themselves: 

45  Epictetus,  Moral  Discourses,  trans,  by  Elizabeth  Carter,  London,  Dent,  1910,  Frag- 
ment 38. 

46 IV,  8,  4,  quoted  in  L.  Friedlander,  Roman  Life  and  Manners,  Vol.  HI,  p.  237. 
Friedlander's  Chapter  in  of  this  volume  on  "Philosophy  as  a  Moral  Education** 
gleans  many  interesting  details  from  the  sources. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

In  this  case  the  law  is  that  if  a  woman  has  been  seduced  she  can  choose  either 
to  have  her  seducer  condemned  to  death  or  marry  him  without  bringing  him  any 

A  man  violates  two  women  on  the  same  night.  One  asks  for  him  to  be  put  to 
death,  the  other  chooses  to  marry  him.47 

Something  has  certainly  happened  to  "philosophy"  since  the  pre-Socratics! 

I  have  hitherto  restrained  myself  from  making  the  obvious  comparisons.  When 
the  million  and  more  sesterces  of  the  charioteer  Crescens's  prize  money  came 
up,  I  said  nothing  of  Eddie  Arcaro;  nor  did  I  suggest  that  Celadus,  the 
suspirum  et  decus  puellarum  of  the  Pompeian  graffiti  had  anticipated  Elvis 
Presley  by  two  thousand  years.  But  we  cannot  here  sensibly  dodge  the  much- 
discussed  topic:  Are  we  now  somewhere  in  our  own  modern  Western  version 
of  the  Greco-Roman  world?  From  Spengler  through  to  Toynbee  and  the  latest 
appeal  to  history  as  a  clue  to  the  future,  our  time  has  seen  dozens  of  versions 
of  the  parallel  between  the  Greco-Roman  world  and  our  own.  A  history  of 
morals  in  the  West  can  by  no  means  be  extended  into  an  attempt  to  examine 
all  sides  of  this  problem;  but  neither  can  such  a  history  wholly  avoid  con- 
sidering this  problem,  if  only  because  for  the  moral  temper  of  our  own  age 
this  appeal  to  history,  or  to  historicism,  is  most  important. 

Toynbee  and  his  fellows  have  made  the  cyclical  form  almost  as  much  the 
accepted  form  of  our  thinking  on  these  matters  as  unilinear  evolution  was  for 
our  grandfathers.  It  is  difficult  today  to  avoid  thinking  of  all  sorts  of  human 
group  activities  as  subject  to  ups  and  downs,  growth,  decay,  and  death,  spring, 
summer,  fall,  winter,  and  other  such  conceptual  schemes  or  figures  of  speech. 
From  business  firms  through  sports  clubs  to  nations  and  civilizations,  we  have 
before  us  what  we  must  thinlc  of  as  the  fact  of  cyclical  processes.  We  under- 
stand thoroughly  none  of  them,  can  control  fully  none  of  them,  not  even  the 
business  cycle.  It  is  probably  true  that  the  wider  the  net  of  human  activity 
we  gather  together  to  study  as  a  cycle,  the  less  accurately  we  can  analyze 
it.  The  Spenglerian  civilization,  the  Toynbean  society,  are  so  great,  so  compli- 
cated, so  much  a  series  of  cycles  within  cycles  within  cycles,  that  we  cannot 
possibly  use  them  to  place  our  own  society  in  a  single  position  analogous  to 
these.  We  cannot  say  the  West  is  now  just  where  the  Greco-Roman  society 
was  in  such  and  such  a  year,  or  century. 

Any  attempt  to  analyze  the  varied  human  activities  from  which  the  master 
47  Seneca,  Controversiae,  I,  2,  quoted  in  H.  I.  Marrou,  Education  in  Antiquity,  p.  287. 


The  Greco-Roman  World 

cycle  of  the  whole  society  is  usually  constructed  shows  at  once  that  we  can- 
not really  fit  the  parts  together.  If  one  takes  the  relations  among  the  independ- 
ent states  making  up  a  given  society — international  politics — one  can  see 
with  Toynbee  a  certain  parallel  between  our  day  and  the  Greco-Roman  day 
of  about  250  B.C.  The  superpowers  Rome  and  Carthage  become  the  super- 
powers U.S. A.  and  U.S.S.R.;  one  or  the  other  will  give  the  "knockout  blow" 
and  there  will  be  a  new  universal  state,  American-  or  Russian-inspired.  In- 
deed, Mr.  Amaury  de  Riencourt  has  already  decided  that  the  Americans  are 
the  Romans  of  the  modern  world.  If  one  takes  morals  in  the  vulgar  modern 
sense,  with  emphasis  on  luxury,  "sensate"  self-indulgence,  sophistication  at 
the  top,  and  some  effort  at  the  bottom  to  keep  up  with  the  top,  in  short,  if  one 
is  Mr.  Sorokin,  then  we  now  appear  to  be,  not  in  250  B.C.,  but  three  hundred 
years  later,  along  with  the  contemporaries  of  Martial  and  Juvenal,  along  with 
all  the  shocking  conduct  we  have  just  above  briefly  and  decently  reviewed.  If 
one  takes  over-all  economic  productivity,  the  application  of  any  cyclical 
theory  is  impossible,  because  so  far  there  has  been  no  secular  trend  in  modern 
Western  society,  since  the  end  of  the  Middle  Ages  at  least,  save  upward.  The 
horrors  of  twentieth-century  destructiveness  have  not,  statistically  speaking, 
destroyed;  two  world  wars  and  a  great  depression  have  left  the  West  richer 
in  things  of  this  world  than  it  has  ever  been. 

If  we  cannot  then  apply  cyclical  theories  to  our  own  society  with  diag- 
nostic success,  can  we,  perhaps,  consider  the  whole  development  of  the  Med- 
iterranean world  in  "classical"  antiquity  as  a  kind  of  case  history?  If  we  take 
"case  history"  seriously,  as  at  least  an  effective  working  tool  of  the  sort  the 
clinician  in  medicine  uses,  clearly  the  answer  is  no.  The  clinician  who  con- 
cluded anything  at  all  from  one  case  history  would  be  thought  ill  of  by  his 
colleagues.  Even  if  with  Toynbee  and  others  we  judge  that  history  gives  us 
something  to  work  with  for  maybe  a  dozen  or  so  civilized  societies,  these  are 
few  indeed;  and,  more  important,  they  are  perhaps  so  different  as  to  be  useless 
for  the  diagnostician,  for  we  may  be  comparing  the  incomparable,  and  our 
actual  knowledge  of  their  histories  is  often  slight.  We  do  know  the  "classical 
world"  quite  well,  too  well,  if  we  are  sensible,  to  suppose  that  what  has  hap- 
pened there  is  going  to  happen  here.  All  that  we  can  do  with  the  history  of  the 
Greco-Roman  world  is  what  we  can  always  do  with  any  history — treat  it  as 
a  record  of  human  experience  which  we  can  add  with  due  caution  to  what 
we  know  of  our  own  times.  We  can  draw  all  sorts  of  generalizations  from  that 
sort  of  experience,  but  no  master  generalization  about  man's  fate,  human 
destiny,  "whither  mankind?" 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

There  remains,  however,  the  old  chestnut  about  the  causes  of  the  fall 
of  the  Roman  Empire.  Surely  the  historian  of  morals  cannot  decently  side-step 
that  question,  though  he  cannot  pretend  to  answer  it  completely.  He  will  not 
in  mid-twentieth  century  go  along  with  any  variants  of  naive  materialistic 
determination  which  rule  out  morals  from  the  variables  to  be  considered.  The 
fall  of  Rome  was  not  simply  a  moral  fall,  but  it  was  in  part  a  moral  fall.  One 
cannot  even  say  that,  given  the  conduct  our  sources  report  for  these  centuries, 
a  society  in  which  men  and  women  conducted  themselves  as  did  the  Greco- 
Romans  was  corrupt,  decadent,  bound  to  collapse  under  attack  from  the  out- 
side if  not  under  revolt  from  the  inside.  One  can  make  the  rough  generaliza- 
tion that  at  least  in  the  ruling  classes  and  its  hangers-on  the  kind  of  conduct 
that  we  most  readily  label  "immoral" — the  vices  of  self-indulgence  and  dis- 
play— tend  to  diminish  somewhat  after  what  was  perhaps  their  peak  early  in 
imperial  times.  This  is  by  no  means  a  sure  generalization.  It  may  be  that  our 
sources  for  later  periods  lack  the  moral  intensity  of  a  Tacitus.  The  later 
historian  Ammianus  Marcellinus  has  two  good  passages  of  moralistic  attack 
on  the  weaknesses  of  the  upper  classes,  but  they  are  not  very  vehement  or  very 
extensive,  and  are  perhaps  no  more  than  the  conventional  scornful  feelings  of 
the  soldier  toward  the  rulers  back  home.  The  society  reflected  in  the  Saturnalia 
of  Macrobius  is,  as  Samuel  Dill  points  out,  simpler  than  the  luxurious  one  of 
old,  with  no  fantastic  foods,  no  dancing  girls,  no  extravagant  display.48 

The  tough-minded  may  infer  that  the  comparative  poverty  of  the  last 
years  of  the  Empire  explains  this  comparative  chastity  and  decency;  the  ten- 
der-minded will  remind  us  that  Christianity  ought  to  have  had  some  effect  on 
the  conduct  of  those  who  espoused  it.  Certainly  the  Christian  writers  found 
no  improvement  in  the  morals  of  the  many.  Salvianus  of  fifth-century  Aqui- 
taine  found  his  fellows  living  in  one  vast  whore  house,  found  no  one  chaste — 
except,  one  hopes,  himself.49  Even  after  the  gladiatorial  games  were  finally 
suppressed  early  in  the  fifth  century,  the  mimes  continued  to  carry  on  with 
the  usual  indecencies,  acting  out  Leda's  loves,  and  the  like.  So  reports  Si- 
donius,  a  provincial  of  Gaul,  and  thus  an  early  Frenchman,  perhaps  already 
saddled  with  the  French  national  obligation  to  note  these  matters  saltily.50 

Still,  it  is  difficult  to  escape  the  conclusion  that  the  moral  tone  of  life  at 
Rome  itself,  and  to  a  degree  throughout  the  Empire,  was  not  one  in  keeping 

48  Ammianus  Marcellinus,  XIV,  6  and  XXVIII,  4;  Dill,  Roman  Society  in  the  Last 
Century  of  the  Western  Empire,  p.  161. 

49  Dill,  op.  cit.,  pp.  140-141,  quoting  Salvianus,  On  God's  Governance,  Book  VII,  16. 

50  Carmina,  Book  XXffl,  286-288,  quoted  in  Dill,  op.  cit.,  p.  56. 


The  Greco-Roman  World 

with  the  maintenance  of  a  state  and  a  society  able  to  stand  off  its  enemies.  This 
is  surely  true  if  one  is  concerned  with  the  civic  virtues,  those  of  the  citizen- 
soldier,  the  citizen  participant  in  community  political  life.  Even  in  the  upper 
classes,  there  was  a  sharp  division  between  the  workers  in  war  and  administra- 
tion, the  admirable  Stoic  gentlemen  who  manned  the  Empire,  and  the  corrupt 
aristocracy  of  Rome  and  high  politics.  There  was  the  horde  of  Romans  on 
the  dole,  a  people  no  longer  good  for  war  or  peace.  There  was  the  slave  prole- 
tariat, and  the  many  tribes  and  peoples  of  this  huge  political  entity,  none  of 
them  really  sharing  in  the  common  thing  of  the  Empire.  The  commonplace  is 
unavoidable;  even  with  the  final  spread  of  Roman  citizenship  in  a  legal  sense 
throughout  the  Empire  (slaves  were  never,  of  course,  full  citizens),  even  with 
the  development  of  emperor  worship  as  some  kind  of  symbolism  to  remind 
ordinary  people  that  there  was  an  Empire,  this  huge  state  never  really  was 
more  than  a  congeries  held  together  by  its  armies  and  its  bureaucrats,  and  by 
sheer  habit. 

I  do  not  wish  to  be  understood  as  maintaining  that  the  civic  virtues  at 
their  best  in  fact — let  alone  at  their  best  in  words,  as  in  worship  of  Swiss  can- 
tons or  New  England  town  meetings — are  an  essential  to  a  going  state.  I  mean 
merely  that  with  all  the  variables  allowed  for,  including  by  all  means  the  eco- 
nomic weaknesses  of  the  later  Empire,  the  "lack  of  Romans,"  the  taxing  away 
of  the  responsible  middle  class  of  curiales,  even,  perhaps,  the  malaria  and  the 
sunspots,  all  the  long,  long  list  of  "causes"  of  the  fall,  a  moral  weakness,  not 
so  much  a  matter  of  the  picturesque  vices  as  one  of  softness,  lack  of  civic 
responsibility,  lack  of  drive  toward  a  shared  earthly  betterment  of  material 
conditions,  perhaps  even,  toward  the  end,  a  vague  feeling  of  despair,  must  be 
on  the  list. 

Softness?  Despair?  Is  this  the  old  tale  of  Gibbon  once  more?  Am  I  about 
to  list  Christianity  as  at  least  partly  responsible  for  the  fall  of  the  earthly  Ro- 
man Empire?  I  am  indeed,  though  not  in  a  spirit  of  gloating  irony.  It  may  well 
be — I  think  it  is — true  that  no  men  and  no  institutions  we  can  realistically 
imagine  in  a  restrained  exercise  of  history-in-the-conditional  could  have  held 
the  congeries  of  the  Roman  Empire  together.  Let  us  grant  Toynbee  that  the 
Empire  was  in  a  sense  born  dead.  Still,  it  would  also  seem  true  that  the  kind 
of  virtues  that  are  indispensable  to  an  imperial  ruling  elite  were  not  those  of 
early  Christianity,  and  that  for  the  many  what  early  Christianity  brought  was 
by  no  means  a  set  of  civic  virtues  they  had  previously  lacked.  We  must  turn 
now  to  the  moral  implications  of  the  Judaeo-Christian  tradition  as  it  grew  in 
the  Greco-Roman  world  and  embodied  itself  in  the  Roman  Catholic  Church. 


The  Beginnings  of  the  Judaea-Christian  Tradition 

THE  TAXONOMY — to  say  nothing  of  the  genetics — of  morals  is  a  difficult  busi- 
ness. What  I  have  in  this  chapter  heading  called  the  "Judaeo-Christian"  tra- 
dition is  perhaps  better  called,  in  spite  of  the  unwieldiness  of  the  phrase,  the 
"Judaeo-Helleno-Romano-Christian"  tradition.  Certainly  as  to  ethical  con- 
cepts there  can  be  no  doubt  that  as  early  as  St.  Paul  himself  Greek  ways  of 
thinking  and  feeling,  with  difficulty,  if  at  all,  to  be  discerned  in  previous  Jewish 
culture,  come  into  Christian  thought  and  feeling.  Nothing  is  easier  than  to 
draw  from  the  works  of  Greco-Roman  writers  from  Plato  on  expressions  of 
ideas  that  seem  clearly  Christian.  I  shall  shortly  give  a  brief  sample  of  this 
familiar  procedure  of  finding  classic  Greece  in  Christianity.  But  in  the  balance 
it  still  looks  as  if  so  much  of  what  made  Christianity  different  from  Stoicism, 
or  Neoplatonism,  or  any  of  the  actual  cults  of  the  Empire,  those  of  Mithra  or 
of  Isis,  for  example,  does  come  from  the  Jews  that  the  term  "Judaeo- 
Christian"  is  justifiable.  Job,  Isaiah,  Jeremiah,  and  Jesus  must,  even  to  the 
natural  historian  of  morals — and  most  certainly  to  the  Christian  believer — 
mean  more  than  Plato,  Zeao,  Marcus  Aurelius,  Plotinus,  and  all  the  rest  of  the 
pagans  put  together. 

From  the  disasters  that  overcame  the  Jewish  independent  polity  and  cul- 
minated in  the  fall  of  Jerusalem  and  the  Babylonian  captivity  at  the  beginning 
of  the  sixth  century  B.C.,  the  intellectual  leaders  of  the  Jewish  people  were 
stirred  to  a  heart  searching  out  of  which  came  the  prophetic  books  of  the  Old 
Testament,  and  what  looks  like  a  revolutionary  shift  of  Jewish  theology  into 
a  universalistic  monotheism,  and  into  much  else  new.  These  results  of  loss  of 


The  Beginnings  of  the  Judaeo-Christian  Tradition 

political  independence  are  in  themselves  remarkable.  Carthage  was  destroyed 
— and  rebuilt  eventually — with  no  such  results.  The  loss  of  independence  by 
the  Greek  city-states,  if  more  gradual  and  unaccompanied,  as  a  rule,  by 
razing  of  temples  and  deportations  of  intellectuals,  was  still  a  real  loss,  and 
one  that  produced  no  moral  renewal.  From  the  point  of  view  of  an  engaged 
intellectual,  the  blows  that  have  fallen  on  France  in  the  twentieth  century  are 
certainly  heavy,  and  they  have  in  the  existentialist  movement  produced  some- 
thing in  high  culture;  but  though  some  of  our  French  existentialists  sound  at 
moments  like  Jeremiah  at  his  worst,  the  comparison  is  for  the  natural  historian 
of  morals  pretty  silly.  Not  even  a  relatively  intense  modern  nationalism  of  the 
sort  prevalent  in  France  seems  to  produce  the  reaction  to  defeat  produced  in 
Jewish  nationalism  by  the  downfall  of  the  kingdoms  of  Judah  and  Israel. 

The  kind  of  secular  "nationalism"  we  can  understand  is  clearly  not  quite 
what  filled  Jewish  heads  and  hearts.  The  Jews  by  the  sixth  century  B.C.  had 
been  molded  into  a  community  of  extraordinarily  disciplined  cohesion.  They 
were  already  a,  but  not  yet  the,  Chosen  People.  Jehovah  had  laid  down  the 
Law  for  them:  the  Jew  who  followed  the  Law  could  be  certain,  morally  cer- 
tain, that  Jehovah  would  take  care  of  him.  We  are  here  at  a  most  delicate 
point.  Christian  terms  like  "salvation,"  "grace,"  and  even  "heaven"  are  not 
right  here;  and  thougji  there  is  something  shocking  in  the  suggestion  that  the 
Jew  who  followed  the  Law  was  "well-adjusted,"  free  from  anxiety,  full  of  ego 
satisfaction,  yet  if  these  phrases  of  our  time  are  taken  freely  and  not  too 
naively,  they  may  be  useful  in  understanding  why  the  fall  of  Jerusalem  upset 
so  much. 

Disaster  shook  this  certainty,  but  it  did  not  shake  the  moral  and  intellec- 
tual habits  on  which  the  certainty  was  founded.  Above  all,  it  did  not  lead  the 
Jews  to  doubt  Jehovah,  and  certainly  not,  in  the  pagan  Greek  manner,  to  curse 
hiTn  for  letting  them  down. 

Thou,  O  Lord,  abidest  for  ever; 

Thy  throne  is  from  generation  to  generation. 

Wherefore  dost  thou  forget  us  for  ever, 

And  forsake  us  so  long  time? 

Turn  thou  us  unto  thee,  O  Lord,  and  we  shall  be  turned; 

Renew  our  days  as  of  old. 

But  thou  has  utterly  rejected  us, 

Thou  art  very  wroth  against  us.1 

The  prophets  were  sure  that  it  was  the  Jews  who  had  let  Jehovah  down. 

1  Lamentations  5:19-22. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

They  were  articulate,  and  managed  to  record  a  great  number  and  variety  of 
sins  and  backslidings.  Some  are  the  kind  of  sin  we  have  noted  before — whor- 
ing after  strange  gods,  lapses  in  following  the  Law — but  many  are  lapses  in 
conduct  of  the  sort  Western  tradition  generally  recognizes  as  immoral.  The 
prophets  do  write  in  a  figurative  and  lofty  style  of  a  kind  likely  to  throw  off 
the  modern  realist;  but  it  seems  possible  that  often  when  they  talk  of  whoring 
they  mean  it  unfiguratively.  Here,  at  any  rate,  is  a  sampling  from  Jeremiah: 

Why  then  is  this  people  of  Jerusalem  slidden  back  by  a  perpetual  backsliding?  they 
hold  fast  deceit,  they  refuse  to  return.  I  hearkened  and  heard,  but  they  spake  not 
aright:  no  man  repenteth  him  of  his  wickedness,  saying,  What  have  I  done?  every 
one  turned  to  his  course,  as  a  horse  that  rusheth  headlong  hi  battle.  Yea,  the  stork 
in  the  heaven  knoweth  her  appointed  times;  and  the  turtle  and  the  swallow  and 
the  crane  observe  the  time  of  their  coming;  but  my  people  know  not  the  judgment 
of  the  Lord.  How  do  ye  say,  We  are  wise,  and  the  law  of  the  Lord  is  with  us? 
But,  behold,  the  false  pen  of  the  scribes  hath  wrought  falsely.  The  wise  men  are 
ashamed,  they  are  dismayed  and  taken:  lo,  they  have  rejected  the  word  of  the 
Lord;  and  what  manner  of  wisdom  is  in  them?  Therefore  will  I  give  their  wives 
unto  others,  and  their  fields  to  them  that  shall  inherit  them:  for  every  one  from 
the  least  even  unto  the  greatest  is  given  to  covetousness,  from  the  prophet  even 
unto  the  priest  every  one  dealeth  falsely.  And  they  have  healed  the  hurt  of  the 
daughter  of  my  people  lightly,  saying,  Peace,  peace;  when  there  is  no  peace. 
Were  they  ashamed  when  they  had  committed  abomination?  nay,  they  were  not 
at  all  ashamed,  neither  could  they  blush:  therefore  shall  they  fall  among  them 
that  fall:  in  the  time  of  their  visitation  they  shall  be  cast  down.2 

The  logic  would  be  neat  indeed:  Jehovah  is  punishing  the  Jews,  not  be- 
cause they  transgressed  the  Law  as  of  old  understood,  but  because  their  very 
concept  of  Jehovah  and  the  Law  as  theirs  and  theirs  alone  was  a  sin  against 
the  one  true  universal  God  of  all  men.  I  do  not  think  that  even  Isaiah  thought 
explicitly  in  this  way — there  are  those  who  hold  that  he  was  mainly  concerned 
with  international  politics,  being  pro-Assyrian  and  anti-Egyptian — and  yet 
somehow  he  did  make  the  leap  from  the  tribal  to  the  universal. 

Ye  are  my  witnesses,  saith  the  Lord,  and  my  servant  whom  I  have  chosen:  that  ye 
may  know  and  believe  me,  and  understand  that  I  am  he;  before  me  there  was  no 
God  formed,  neither  shall  there  be  after  me.  I,  even  I,  am  the  Lord;  and  beside 
me  there  is  no  saviour.3 

2  Jeremiah  8:5-12.  The  first  few  chapters  of  Jeremiah  are  a  good  specimen  of  pro- 
phetic moral  writing,  less  lofty  than  Isaiah,  but  still  hardly  earth-bound.  Eric  Hoffer 
has  dared  suggest  that  the  prophets  were  the  first  revolutionary  intellectuals.  The  new 
labor-saving  device  of  the  alphabet,  he  argues,  produced  a  new  class  of  intellectuals  who 
could  not  find  employment,  and  who  were  thus  "alienated"  and  turned  to  attack  on, 
not  support  of,  existing  ways.  Pacific  Spectator,  Vol.  X  (1956),  p.  7. 

3  Isaiah  43: 10-11. 


The  Beginnings  of  the  Judaeo-Christian  Tradition 

Here,  however,  the  next  turn  is  clear.  This  one  universal  God  has  chosen 
the  Jews  in  a  different  sense  from  the  old  way  of  Jehovah,  chosen  them  to 
lead  the  other  peoples  to  Him. 

For  Zion's  sake  will  I  not  hold  my  peace,  and  for  Jerusalem's  sake  I  will  not  rest, 
until  her  righteousness  go  forth  as  brightness,  and  her  salvation  as  a  lamp  that 
burneth.  And  the  nations  shall  see  thy  righteousness,  and  all  kings  thy  glory:  and 
thou  shalt  be  called  by  a  new  name,  which  the  mouth  of  the  Lord  shall  name.  Thou 
shalt  also  be  a  crown  of  beauty  in  the  hand  of  the  Lord,  and  a  royal  diadem  in  the 
hand  of  thy  God.  Thou  shalt  no  more  be  termed  Forsaken;  neither  shall  thy  land 
any  more  be  termed  Desolate:4 

There  is  no  use  insisting  on  the  obvious:  we  are  not  here  in  the  midst  of 
the  eighteenth-century  Enlightenment  and  its  cosmopolitan  rationalist  theory. 
Isaiah's  God  was,  at  least  during  the  process  of  adjustment  after  this  victory, 
going  to  behave  toward  these  now  momentarily  triumphant  gentiles  much  the 
way  jealous  old  Jehovah  behaved  toward  backsliders. 

And  kings  shall  be  thy  nursing  fathers,  and  their  queens  thy  nursing  mothers: 
they  shall  bow  down  to  thee  with  their  faces  to  the  earth,  and  lick  the  dust  of  thy 
feet;  and  thou  shalt  know  that  I  am  the  Lord,  and  they  that  wait  for  me  shall  not 
be  ashamed.  Shall  the  prey  be  taken  from  the  mighty,  or  the  lawful  captives  be 
delivered?  But  thus  saith  the  Lord,  Even  the  captives  of  the  mighty  shall  be  taken 
away,  and  the  prey  of  the  terrible  shall  be  delivered:  for  I  will  contend  with  him 
that  contendeth  with  thee,  and  I  will  save  thy  children.  And  I  will  feed  them  that 
oppress  thee  with  their  own  flesh;  and  they  shall  be  drunken  with  their  own  blood, 
as  with  sweet  wine:  and  all  flesh  shall  know  that  I  the  Lord  am  thy  saviour,  and 
thy  redeemer,  the  Mighty  One  of  Jacob.5 

Here,  then,  are  already  the  broad  foundation  lines  of  the  Christian  inter- 
pretation of  man's  fate:  one  universal  righteous  God,  sinful  and  disobedient 
men  who  transgress  God's  ways,  God's  plan  to  set  up  a  minority  as  an  ex- 
ample of  men  who  do  not  so  transgress,  and  who  will  be  rewarded  for  setting 
this  example,  not  only  by  winning  the  world,  but  by  winning  eternal  salvation 
in  the  next  world.  I  have  deliberately  and  I  dare  say  successfully  put  this  last 
flatly  and  with  no  spark.  It  was,  as  we  all  know,  put  in  splendid  language 
that  did  justify  God's  ways  to  man.  Cherished  and  developed  in  the  Jewish 
communities  within  the  world  of  Greco-Roman  culture  we  have  just  studied, 
given  added  intensity  by  the  concept  of  a  single  earthly  leader,  the  Messiah, 
who  should  do  what  the  prophets  had  said  would  be  done,  the  Word  seems 
already  clear:  it  is  a  universalist  high  ethical  monotheism. 

4  Isaiah  62- 1-4 

5  Isaiah  49:23-26. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

The  successors  of  the  Babylonian  exiles  did  come  back  to  Jerusalem. 
David  and  Solomon  had  no  heirs,  but  Jewry  was  not  yet  wholly  dispersed. 
Babylonian  gave  way  to  Persian  hegemony,  Persian  to  Greek,  Greek  to 
Roman,  but  the  Jews  lived  on  in  Palestine,  a  Palestine  increasingly  made  part 
of  this  Levantine  One  World  of  trade,  war,  politics,  increasingly  subject  to 
inflow  and  outflow  of  men  and  ideas.  The  Jews  responded  variously.  A  few 
of  the  ruling  classes  accepted  assimilation  to  Greek  and  later  Roman  ways. 
The  best  known  of  these  is  the  Herod  who  ruled  at  the  time  of  the  birth  of 
Christ,  a  kinglet  who  formed  part  of  the  elaborate  chain  of  Roman  control  of 
the  East.  Jews  had  already  begun,  not  the  forced  later  migration  known  as 
the  Diaspora,  but  individual  migration  to  the  great  cities  of  the  Empire,  still 
chiefly  in  the  East.  Of  these,  many  learned,  as  did  Saul  of  Tarsus,  a  great  deal 
of  Greece  and  Greek  ways,  without  ceasing  to  think  of  themselves  as  Jews, 
and  without  ceasing  to  follow  the  Law.  At  the  opposite  extreme  there  were 
groups  that  lived  apart  in  intensified  and  perhaps  quite  altered  Jewishness. 
The  recent  discovery  of  the  so-called  Dead  Sea  scrolls — a  discovery  that  by 
the  wide  interest  it  has  aroused  throughout  the  West  at  least  casts  some  doubt 
as  to  the  worrier's  complaint  that  we  have  all  quite  forgotten  the  Bible — has 
focused  attention  on  the  Essenes.  These  seem  to  have  been  communists  who 
lived  together  in  brotherly  sharing  and  simplicity  in  quiet  places,  rejecting 
the  worldly  ways  of  the  Greco-Roman  Levant,  yet  contemplating  a  better 
world  that  might  yet  be  the  world  of  the  prophets.  From  these  and  other 
"advanced"  groups,  perhaps  through  Persian  and  Hindu  influences  that  they 
would  for  the  most  part  have  denied  indignantly,  there  came  into  Jewish 
religious  life  a  much  more  strongly  emphasized  concept  of  an  afterlife,  of 
sin,  repentance,  and  cleansing.  There  came,  also,  a  heightening,  or  at  least  a 
broadening  into  wider  circles  of  the  Jewish  people,  of  the  prophets'  concep- 
tion of  a  Saviour,  a  Messiah  (the  anointed  one,  in  Greek,  Christos),  a 
conception  that  still  arouses  scholarly  debate  over  its  origins,  development, 
and  degree  of  acceptance  among  the  Jews  before  the  birth  of  Christ. 

There  were  also  people  whose  place  and  reputation  in  Jewish  history  is 
very  different  from  the  place  they  occupy  in  our  New  Testament.  The  Phari- 
sees carry  through  Western  history  a  quite  undeserved  reputation  for  wicked- 
ness. They  were  old-fashioned  religious  conservatives,  upholders  of  the  de- 
cencies of  the  Law,  distrustful  of  innovation  and  of  what  the  eighteenth 
century  called  "enthusiasm"  in  religion,  but  surely  not  more  wicked,  not  more 
insensitive,  not  even  more  self-satisfied  than  such  folk  (who  come  out  badly 
in  the  history  of  ideas  in  the  West)  usually  are.  They  were  probably  no  more 


The  Beginnings  of  the  Judaeo-Christian  Tradition 

hypocrites  than  are  any  other  high-minded  routine  conservatives.  Jesus 
shocked  their  sense  of  decency,  and,  perhaps  even  more  important,  seemed 
to  them  by  his  conduct  to  be  making  for  Roman  armed  intervention.  Let  us 
note  that  heroism  in  a  satellite  nation  can  have  consequences  most  unpleasant 
for  the  many  who  are  not  heroes. 


There  were,  then,  Jewish  beliefs,  attitudes,  and  experiences  which  anticipate, 
make  possible,  prepare  the  way  for,  Christianity.  The  Greco-Roman  world, 
too,  found  much  of  Christianity  familiar.  Something  like  monotheism  was 
well  established,  at  least,  quite  well  known,  among  the  educated  classes,  in 
both  East  and  West.  It  was  indeed  a  deistic  or  pantheistic,  and  not  very 
fervent,  belief  in  one  God,  and  it  was  hardly  worship — merely  poetry  and 
philosophy.  Lucan  has  Cato  the  Stoic  say: 

All  that  we  see  is  God;  every  motion  we  make  is  God  also.  Men  who  doubt  and 
are  ever  uncertain  of  future  events — let  them  cry  out  for  prophets:  I  draw  my 
assurance  from  no  oracle  but  the  sureness  of  death.  The  timid  and  the  brave  must 
fall  alike;  the  god  has  said  this,  and  it  is  enough.6 

Still,  such  beliefs  are  a  long  way  from  pagan  polytheism.  Even  closer 
parallels  with  Christian  ethics  can  be  found.  The  motto  of  Epictetus,  "Suffer 
and  renounce,"  is  Stoic,  but  also  Christian.  Nietzsche,  at  least,  might  find 
what  he  thought  the  perverse  Christian  pride  of  the  humble  in  Epictetus's 
"How  do  I  treat  those  whom  you  admire  and  honor?  Is  it  not  like  slaves?  Do 
not  all,  when  they  see  me,  think  they  see  their  lord  and  king?"7  Long  ago 
Plato  had  Socrates  say  in  the  Crito  that  "we  ought  not  to  retaliate  or  render 
evil  for  evil  to  anyone,  whatever  evil  we  may  have  suffered  from  him."  It  is 
true  that  he  went  on  to  add,  "this  opinion  has  never  been  held,  and  never 
will  be  held,  by  any  considerable  number  of  persons."  Is  this  last,  too,  per- 
haps not  wholly  incompatible  with  the  facts  of  Christian  life?8 

Such  parallels,  it  must  be  insisted,  are  abundant.  Their  study  is  often 
interesting  and  even  useful,  but  a  listing  of  them  is  no  more  an  explanation  of 
Christianity  than  a  listing  of  Shakespeare's  sources  is  an  explanation  of 
Shakespeare.  We  cannot  here  go  into  the  many  problems  of  early  church  his- 

6  Lucan,  The  Civil  War,  trans,  by  J.  D.  Duff,  London,  Heinemann,  1928,  Loeb  Classi- 
cal Library,  Vol.  IX,  p.  580. 

7Epictetus,  Discourses,  iii.  22.  Quoted  in  L.  Friedlander,  Roman  Life  and  Manners 
under  the  Early  Empire,  Vol.  m,  pp  272-273. 
»  Crito,  49,  The  Dialogues  of  Plato,  trans,  by  B.  Jowett,  New  York,  Macmillan,  1892, 

VOL  n. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

tory,  the  sources  of  Christian  theology  and  ritual,  and  much  else  essential  to 
the  study  of  Christianity.9  From  the  point  of  view  of  the  outsider,  Christianity 
is  in  all  its  aspects,  from  the  purely  theological  through  the  ethical  to  the 
details  of  liturgy  and  church  government,  a  syncretic  faith;  the  elements  are 
all  there,  ready  to  hand.  But  the  putting  together  was  a  remarkable  achieve- 
ment in  making  something  new. 

On  what  the  triumph  of  Christianity  meant  for  the  moral  life  of  the  West, 
there  has,  at  least  since  with  the  Renaissance  anti-Christian  sentiments  could 
come  out  in  the  open,  been  warm  debate.  We  may  simplify  a  bit,  and  distin- 
guish two  kinds  of  attack  on  Christian  moral  achievement.  The  first,  typically 
that  of  modern  high-minded  rationalism  of  the  Enlightenment,  takes  the 
position  that,  though  most  or  even  all  of  Christian  ethics  is  good,  Christianity 
has  failed  dismally  to  make  them  prevail  in  the  real  world,  largely  because  of 
its  wicked  priesthood,  who  developed  and  spread  its  absurd  theology.  The 
second,  that  represented,  but  by  no  means  exhausted,  by  Nietzsche,  takes  the 
position  that  Christian  ethical  principles  are  in  themselves  bad — low  and 
ignoble — but  seem,  unfortunately,  to  have  been  sufficiently  successful  to  pre- 
vent the  prevailing  of  the  true  good.  We  shall  have  to  return  to  both  these 
positions  in  later  chapters,  for  they  form  an  important  part  of  Western  moral 
history.  Here  we  need  but  note  them  briefly. 

The  late  J.  M.  Robertson,  a  kindly  and  fervent  freethinker,  will  do  well 
to  point  up  the  first  attitude.10  Robertson  works  hard  to  show  that  established 
Christianity  by  no  means  made  the  morals  of  the  Roman  Empire  any  better 
than  they  had  been  under  the  pagans,  indeed,  made  some  human  conduct 
worse.  Slavery  was  not  abolished;  what  there  was  of  improvement  in  the 
workings  of  the  institution  was  due  to  pagan  philosophers  and  pagan  lawyers. 
The  Christians  did  not  stop  the  gladiatorial  games,  in  spite  of  the  noise  the 
Fathers  made  about  them;  the  games  withered  on  the  vine  as  the  economy  of 
the  Empire  declined  to  the  point  where  they  could  not  be  supported.  In  an 

9 1  have  dealt  summarily  with  some  of  these  matters  in  Chapter  V  of  my  Ideas  and 
Men  (New  York,  Prentice-Hall,  1950),  and  have  made  reading  suggestions  on  p.  567 
of  that  book.  See  also  M.  Hadas,  "Plato  in  Hellenistic  Fusion,"  Journal  of  the  His- 
tory of  Ideas,  Vol.  XIX,  January  1958,  p.  3. 

10  "Freethinker"  is  not  the  perfect  word,  but  apparently  there  is  no  single  word  to 
gather  together  the  materialists,  positivists,  rationalists,  deists,  "humanists,"  ethical 
culturalists,  Unitarians,  agnostics,  believers  in  natural  science  as  a  religion,  anticlericals, 
Marxists,  and  the  rest.  You  may  say  that  these  all  stand  for  different  beliefs;  yet  the 
variations  among  them  are  hardly  greater  than  among  Christians  who  have  broken  with 
Rome,  and  for  these  we  have  an  accepted  blanket  word:  "Protestant."  I  propose  gener- 
ally throughout  this  book  to  use  for  these  groups  from  eighteenth-century  deists  to 
twentieth-century  Marxist-Leninists  the  blanket  word  "Enlightened,"  duly  capitalized. 


The  Beginnings  of  the  Judaeo-Christian  Tradition 

analogous  way,  slavery  itself  declined  in  the  Middle  Ages— not  because  of 
Christian  doctrine.  Sex  morals  were  not  improved.  The  insanities  of  early 
monasticism  actually  meant  worse,  more  perverse,  sexual  conduct.  This  all 
leads  up  to  the  familiar  attack  by  Gibbon:  Christian  contempt  for  this  world 
led  to  the  disastrous  failure  of  civic  morality  and  of  military  capacity,  and  to 
the  fall  of  the  Empire.11 

Those  who  claim  to  reject  Christian  ethics  entirely  are  wilder  men.  Some, 
indeed,  are  no  more  than  admirers  of  what  they  think  those  admirable  Greeks 
of  the  fifth  century  B.C.  were  like;  in  the  opinion  of  these  classical  humanists 
from  the  Renaissance  on,  Christianity  destroyed  the  ideals  and  the  practice 
of  the  beautiful-and-good.  But  more  recent  attackers  go  far  beyond  this,  and 
find  that  Christian  ethics  is  the  prevailing  of  the  weak  over  the  strong,  a  flying 
in  the  face  of  Darwin,  "slave  morality,"  an  exaltation  of  Mediterranean  vices 
above  Nordic  virtues,  and  more,  too  much  more,  to  the  same  effect. 

It  is  hard  for  anyone  in  the  West,  Christian,  anti-Christian,  or,  if  such 
there  be,  skeptic,  to  write  about  Christian  morals  without  being  influenced  at 
all  by  the  long  controversies  that  have  been  the  life  of  Christianity.  I  shall  do 
my  best,  with  a  few  further  words  of  warning.  First,  the  inevitable  problem 
of  effective  generalization  from  varied  concrete  instances  comes  up  sharply  in 
any  use  of  the  word  "Christianity."  Since  for  centuries  all  Westerners  were  in 
a  formal  sense  Christian,  the  actual  conduct  of  men  called  "Christians"  has 
run  the  gamut  of  Western  capacities,  which  are  many  and  varied,  and  seems 
to  have  been  fully  exploited.  It  is  at  least  clear  that  many  different  beliefs, 
many  different  human  personalities,  many  different  kinds  of  conduct — some 
of  them  in  conventional  logical  use  actually  antithetical — have  been  given 
"Christian"  as  an  attribute.  There  are  those,  some  of  whom  would  claim  to 
be  Christians,  who  find  an  antithesis  between  Jesus  and  Paul,  at  the  very 
beginnings  of  Christian  history.  I  shall  rarely  mean  by  Christian  all  men 
known  as  Christians.  I  shall  try  to  make  clear  when  I  am  dealing  with  most, 
many,  or  even  average  ordinary  Christians,  when  I  am  dealing  with  excep- 
tional Christians,  and  when  I  am  trying  to  set  up  a  Christian  type,  or  ideal,  or 

Second,  Christianity  began  as  an  apolitical  movement,  indeed,  as  a  quite 

ii  Robertson,  Short  History  of  Morals,  Part  IV,  Chap.  I.  Gibbon  himself  was  not 
above  the  effort  to  have  his  cake  and  eat  it:  "The  religion  of  Constantine,  achieved, 
in  less  than  a  century*  the  final  conquest  of  the  Roman  Empire;  but  the  victors  them- 
selves were  insensibly  subdued  by  the  arts  of  their  vanquished  rivals.  "The  Decline 
and  Fall  of  the  Roman  Empire,  ed.  by  J.  B.  Bury,  New  York,  Macmillan,  1914,  Vol. 

m,  p.  227. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

literally  unworldly,  even  antiworldly,  movement  of  protest,  and  became 
within  a  few  generations  an  established  church,  with  its  own  government,  its 
own  property,  its  own  hierarchy,  increasingly  and  in  the  end  inextricably 
woven  into  the  whole  texture  of  organized,  governed,  working  Western  so- 
ciety. Perhaps  just  because  its  original  ethical  tone,  still  clearly  put  in  many 
a  New  Testament  passage  for  all  to  read,  is  so  completely  unworldly — or 
millennial,  or  Utopian,  or  spiritual — later  Christian  adaptation  to  this  world 
has  seemed  a  particularly  glaring  instance  of  the  gap  between  word  and  deed. 
Christian  attitudes  toward  wealth  make  a  familiar  instance,  especially  dear 
to  Enlightened  anti-Christians  of  the  eighteenth  century  and  after;  these  critics 
were  more  than  willing  to  admit  that  the  church  had  indeed  achieved  one 
miracle — many  a  camel  had  gone  through  the  needle's  eye  since  Christ  had 
advised  the  rich  young  man  to  give  up  his  wealth.12 

Yet  Christians — a  St.  Francis,  and  many  another — have  said  quite  as 
harsh  things  about  a  church  that  enjoyed  wealth,  power,  display,  pride,  that 
gave  by  its  whole  existence  the  lie  to  the  good  news  of  the  gospels,  a  church 
that  seemed  to  accept  this  world  in  all  its  ethical  imperfections.  You  will  not 
understand  the  Christian  tradition,  nor  the  twist  the  Enlightenment  gave  that 
tradition,  if  you  do  not  realize  that  the  violent — yes,  violent — repudiation  of 
the  wickedness  of  ordinary  human  nature  and  of  the  society  in  which  ordinary 
human  nature  has  full  and  free  play  has  never  quite  been  suppressed  in 
Christianity.  The  threat,  or  the  promise,  of  a  newborn,  millennial  society  is 
always  there.  Christianity  has  never,  for  long,  ceased  to  be  a  revolutionary 
faith  for  the  few;  nor  has  it,  for  long,  ceased  to  be  a  consoling,  conservative, 
routine  faith  for  the  many.  But  even  that  routine  has  not  for  long  lapsed  into 
moral  depths  like  that  of  Renaissance  Rome  without  provoking  rebellion. 

Finally,  the  good  Christian  has  always  had,  at  least  until  quite  recently, 
still  another  spur  to  activity,  to  something  more  than  routine  acceptance  of 
whatever  exists.  Christianity  is  a  monopolistic  faith  in  that,  like  the  later 
Judaism  and  Islam,  it  claims  to  be  the  one  true  faith,  a  faith  destined  to  pre- 
vail for  all  on  earth.  The  Christian  wants  to  spread  Christianity  and  he  has 
often  spread  it  with  the  sword;  moreover,  he  wants  the  right  kind  of  Chris- 
tianity, his  own,  and  he  will  insure  the  prevailing  of  the  right  kind  with  an 
Inquisition.  Another  glaring  repudiation  of  all  that  Jesus  came  to  say  and  do? 
Another  use  of  religion  to  cloak  what  really  makes  the  missionary  spirit,  the 
desire  for  wealth  and  power?  Again,  the  anti-Christian — and  the  uneasy,  the 
rebellious,  the  saintly  Christian,  surely  often  his  brother  under  the  skin — 
12  Matthew  19: 16-24. 


The  Beginnings  of  the  Judaeo-Christian  Tradition 

distort  and  oversimplify  our  human  dilemma,  our  human  tragedy.  Christian- 
ity is  an  uneasy,  a  tragic,  an  impossible  faith,  in  high  tension  between  the 
real  and  the  ideal,  the  "is"  and  the  "ought" — that  is  one  of  the  sources  of  its 
strength;  above  all,  that  is  how  it  came  to  spawn  its  long  string  of  heretics, 
from  Tertullian  to  Marx  and  Lenin. 

It  is  perhaps  easier,  though  more  dangerous,  to  begin  with  the  general 
than  with  the  particular.  Christian  concepts  of  ethics  are  related  to  how  the 
believer  thought  and  felt  about  the  universe;  and  such  thought  and  feeling 
are  related  to  the  temper  of  the  Greco-Roman  world  in  the  first  century  A.D., 
to  the  conditions  of  living,  not  just  to  the  "mode  of  production,"  in  that 
modern,  troubled  time.  We  are  dealing  in  big,  vague,  imprecise  terms;  but  it 
looks  as  though  there  was  in  the  first  century  A.D.  a  need  for  Christianity,  in 
as  rigorous  a  meaning  for  that  somewhat  disputed  word  "need"  as  the  social 
psychologist  can  give  it. 

The  commonplaces,  once  more,  are  unavoidable.  Christianity  brought 
consolation  to  the  unhappy,  satisfaction — some  of  it,  through  communistic 
sharing,  material  satisfaction — to  the  poor  and  deprived,  meaning  and  excite- 
ment to  the  bored,  adjustment,  if  I  may  speak  the  language  of  our  time,  to  the 
maladjusted.  Christianity  was  in  its  origins  a  proletarian  movement,  a  religion 
for  the  humble,  for  the  weak,  but,  notably,  as  Nietzsche  himself,  I  suspect, 
really  knew,  for  the  fiercely  rebellious  humble,  the  violent  weak.  It  became 
very  rapidly,  as  we  have  just  noted,  also  a  religion  for  the  strong,  even  for 
the  proud,  with  no  more  of  paradox  or  of  inconsistency  than  is  the  way  of  this 
world.  Individuals,  many  of  whom  sincerely  felt  themselves  to  be  Christians, 
have  enjoyed  wealth  and  power  and  conducted  their  lives  in  ways  the  man 
watcher  has  to  note  as  logically  irreconcilable  with  the  ethics  of  the  Sermon 
on  the  Mount.  Yet  many  Christians  at  all  times  have  clearly  been  aware  of 
the  origins  and  the  spirit  of  their  religion.  Christianity,  to  revert  to  the  ab- 
stract, has  never  ceased  to  do  what  it  set  out  to  do,  to  give  to  the  meek  their 
inheritance  of  the  earth,  the  poor  in  spirit  their  kingdom  of  heaven.  Chris- 
tianity is  indeed,  as  Marx  should  have  known,  since  he  was  so  representative 
a  Judaeo-Christian  revolutionary,  the  food  of  the  people.  It  has  filled,  nour- 
ished, quieted  them;  but  it  has  also  at  times  stimulated  them  just  because  it 
fed  them,  prodded  them  on  in  the  eternal,  impossible  Christian  endeavor. 
We  are  back  at  the  Sermon  on  the  Mount. 

The  need  for  religion  in  the  early  years  of  the  Roman  One  World  is  cer- 
tainly not  to  be  established  statistically,  nor  by  any  retrospective  poll  of 
opinion.  We  do  know  that  there  were  at  the  time  a  great  number  of  competing 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

cults,  a  welter  of  cults,  a  variety  worthy  of  our  own  day.  This  fact  alone 
would  establish  the  need.  But  we  can  perhaps  go  a  bit  further  in  defining  the 
need.  Some  of  it,  surely,  was  the  need  of  the  deprived,  the  physical  suffering 
of  the  poor,  the  starving,  the  beaten  slave,  the  slum  dweller  of  the  great  cities, 
cities  of  hundreds  of  thousands  almost  without  what  we  call  public  utilities 
and  with  hardly  more  of  what  we  call  social  services.  For  them  the  Christian 
communities,  as  we  shall  see,  gave  concrete  material  aid.  We  cannot  be  sure 
that  there  were  relatively  more  of  the  physically  deprived  in  this  Greco- 
Roman  world  than,  say,  in  the  world  of  Hesiod,  or  of  earlier  agricultural 
communities.  Since  nothing  like  our  own  industrial  revolution  and  use  of 
power-driven  machinery  added  to  the  total  economic  productivity  of  this 
Greco-Roman  society,  it  may  be  that  the  poor  really  did  become  poorer  as  the 
Greco-Roman  One  World  developed  after  the  second  century  B.C.  But  we 
can  be  quite  sure  that  many  of  the  social  supports,  the  traditional  steady  ways, 
the  routine,  unthinking  acceptance  of  the  human  as  well  as  the  natural  en- 
vironment, which  go  with  small  rural  communities,  and  which  are  the  real 
and  natural  "opium  of  the  people,"  were  lost  to  the  slum  dweller  of  Alex- 
andria, Antioch,  Corinth,  and  Rome. 

Nor  did  the  physically  adequately  nourished  in  this  society  always  have 
the  equivalent  of  those  traditional  comforting  supports.  We  Americans,  unfor- 
tunately, are  likely  to  be  naive  believers  in  a  crude  economic  interpretation 
of  history;  in  spite  of  the  evidence  about  us,  we  believe  that  collective  human 
action  of  a  revolutionary  sort — and  early  Christianity  was  such  revolutionary 
action — must  spring  from  a  sense  of  purely  physical,  purely  economic,  depri- 
vation. But  what  millions  of  at  least  adequately  fed  and  housed  human  beings 
in  the  Greco-Roman  world  seem  to  have  suffered  from  was  spiritual  depriva- 
tion. They  could  not  wring  religious  meaning  out  of  the  Olympic  pantheon; 
the  gods  were  not  really  any  better  off  than  they  were;  they  could  not  feel  for 
the  Empire,  nor  for  the  no-longer-free  polis,  nor  for  any  political  entity, 
satellite  or  the  like,  the  emotions  men  need  to  feel.  Stoicism  was  enough 
for  some;  but,  unorganized,  with  no  ritual,  no  communion,  not  indeed,  a 
religion  at  all,  less  so  than  the  least  sacramental  and  communal  of  our  own 
contemporary  secular  or  surrogate  religions,  no  more  than  a  philosophy, 
Stoicism  was  not  a  faith  for  the  many.  This  was  a  big,  busy,  still-growing 
society,  unstable  certainly  at  the  imperial  level,  a  society  in  which  men  moved 
about  a  good  deal,  a  society  in  which,  had  there  been  sociologists  and  social 
psychologists,  there  would  have  been  a  good  deal  written  about  social  mo- 


The  Beginnings  of  the  Judaeo-Christian  Tradition 

bility,  rootlessness,  lack  of  inner  direction,  frustration,  lack  of  community, 
and  even,  I  feel  sure,  about  the  obvious  alienation  of  the  intellectuals. 

I  shall  insist  on  what  I  have  just  written;  minions  of  rich,  moderately 
well-to-do,  and  just  ordinary  men  and  women  suffered  in  those  days  from 
spiritual  deprivation.  But  if  a  reader  cannot  find  meaning  in  that  word  "spirit- 
ual," I  am  willing  to  use  the  language  of  the  hard-boiled.  Millions  of  such 
men  and  women  suffered  from  anxiety,  from  a  feeling  of  insecurity,  from 
sheer  boredom.  Theirs  was  a  society  in  which  the  established  groupings  of 
human  beings,  which  were  also  rankings,  assignments  of  accepted  status,  were 
in  part,  and  in  very  significant  part,  especially  in  the  cities  of  the  Mediter- 
ranean coasts,  breaking  down  and  leaving  the  individual,  a  human  being,  al- 
most identical,  as  Cicero  said,  with  other  human  beings.  Theirs  was,  in  our 
language,  a  society  with  a  strong  egalitarian  and  individualistic  drive,  a  society 
in  which  individuals  felt  they  were  not  born  to  a  place,  but  had  to  make  a 
place  for  themselves. 

I  exaggerate  deliberately.  There  were  many,  many  spots,  not  all,  by  any 
means,  backwaters,  in  the  Greco-Roman  world  where  the  old  reassuring 
steady  ways  continued.  Many  men  and  women,  even  in  the  great  cities,  must 
have  gone  on  quietly  doing,  believing,  being,  what  their  ancestors  had  done, 
believed,  and  been.  They  crop  up  to  the  end,  even  among  the  literary,  an 
Ausonius,  a  Sidonius,  an  Ammianus  Marcellinus.  But  read — and  it  is  fine 
reading — those  few  specimens  of  the  social  historian's  treasured  source,  ap- 
proximations to  the  novel,  which  we  have  from  those  days,  the  Satyricon  of 
Petronius  and  the  Golden  Ass  of  Apuleius,  and  add  for  good  measure  some 
skits  of  Lucian's.  You  will,  I  think,  conclude  that  this  was  a  world  in  which 
ordinary  men  and  women  did  feel  uprooted.  Poor  Trimalchio,  for  all  his 
self-won  wealth,  if  not,  indeed,  because  of  it,  was  at  least  as  insecure  as  any- 
one Arthur  Koestler  ever  drew. 

To  the  poor,  the  bored,  the  unhappy,  and,  let  us  never  forget,  to  the  men 
of  good  will,  to  the  ambitious,  to  those  extraordinary  men  the  professional 
revolutionary  leaders,  those  organizers  of  disorganisation,  as  well  as  to  their 
successors,  the  reorganizes  of  organization,  and,  in  a  sense  most  important 
of  all,  to  the  minions  who  did  what  others  did,  the  joiners,  the  conformists, 
the  accepters  of  fashion  (without  whom  there  would  be  no  fashion) — to  all 
of  these  Christianity  brought  meaning,  and  opportunity.  H.  L.  Mencken  puts 
it  neatly:  "Try  to  imagine  two  evangelists  on  a  street-corner  in  Corinth  or 
Ephesus,  one  expounding  the  Nicomachaean  Ethics  [of  Aristotle]  or  a  homily 
by  Valentinus  the  Gnostic  and  the  other  reciting  the  Sermon  on  the  Mount 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

or  the  Twenty-third  Psalm;  certainly  it  is  not  hard  to  guess  which  would  fetch 
the  greater  audience  of  troubled  and  seeking  men."13  Christianity — I  must 
repeat  that  I  am  writing  from  a  historical-naturalistic  point  of  view — in  its 
first  days  satisfied  the  needs  and  gave  scope  for  the  gifts  of  many  different 
kinds  of  men — Christ  himself,  John  the  Evangelist,  Peter,  Paul,  the  many 
now  unknown  who  must  have  contributed  to  the  canon  of  the  New  Testament. 

An  ethic  is  always  closely  related  to  an  attempt  to  understand  the  uni- 
verse, to  a  theology,  a  cosmology,  or,  at  the  very  least,  to  water  such  great 
concerns  down  as  much  as  they  ever  can  be,  a  Weltanschauung,  or  world 
view.  Christian  ethics  could  hardly  be  what  they  are  and  have  been  had 
Christianity  not  given  the  kind  of  answers  it  did  to  the  problems  that  troubled 
the  men  and  women  of  the  first  century  A.D.  Of  first  importance  for  under- 
standing the  extreme  flnriworldliness  of  early  Christianity  is  the  doctrine  of 
the  Second  Coming.  The  first  Christian  Jews,  as  we  have  noted  above,  were 
prepared  for  a  Messiah,  for  a  leader  who  would  carry  out  the  word  of  the 
Hebrew  prophets.  As  Christianity  spread  to  the  gentiles,  the  doctrine  of  the 
Messiah  who  was  to  restore  Zion  was  transmuted  into  the  doctrine  of  the  risen 
Christ  who  was  to  return  shortly  indeed  at  the  end  of  this  world,  at  the  final 
judgment  day,  when  the  saved  should  enter  on  an  inheritance  of  eternal  bliss, 
the  damned  on  one  of  eternal  misery.  Christ  himself  is  authority:  "Verily  I 
say  unto  you,  there  be  some  of  them  that  stand  here,  which  shall  in  no  wise 
taste  of  death,  till  they  see  the  Son  of  man  coming  in  his  kingdom."14 

Now  to  many  of  us,  perhaps  born  tough-minded,  but  certainly  molded  by 
a  culture  in  which  such  dominant  strains  as  philosophic  rationalism,  instru- 
mentalism,  and  the  practice  of  natural  science  are  most  unfavorable  to  Mes- 
sianic beliefs  of  just  this  sort — that  is,  to  beliefs  based  on  a  supernatural 
Saviour  and  an  interruption  of  the  ordinary  natural  regularities — the  doctrine 
of  the  Second  Coining  is  incomprehensible  nonsense.15  Yet  if  you  really 

*3  Treatise  on  Right  and  Wrong,  p.  181.  I  have  no  space  for  the  interesting  subject 
of  what  the  competing  cults  brought,  and  why  Christianity  won  out  over  them. 
Broadly,  Christianity  brought  everything  they  did,  and  more,  notably  a  more  im- 
mediate, concrete  promise  of  salvation  and  a  much  better-served,  better-organized, 
better-loved  Church  Militant.  I  refer  the  reader  to  the  books  I  suggest  on  p.  567  of 
Ideas  and  Men  and  on  this  topic  especially  to  two  of  the  older  ones,  Franz  Cumont, 
The  Oriental  Religions  in  Roman  Paganism,  and  T.  R.  Glover,  The  Conflict  of  Re- 
ligions in  the  Early  Roman  Empire. 

14  Matthew  16:28.  The  Synoptic  Gospels  are  in  agreement  on  this  point 

15  The  above  was  written  not  with  irony,  merely  with  caution.  Messianic,  or  at  least 
Utopian,  beliefs  of  another  sort,  based  on  eighteenth-century  belief  in  the  natural 
goodness  and  reasonableness  of  man,  still  survive  the  twentieth-century  intellectual 
climate,  though  I  think  they  are  wilting  a  bit. 


The  Beginnings  of  the  Judaeo-Christian  Tradition 

thought  and  felt,  were  really  sure,  that  to  secure,  even  to  desire,  what  your 
appetites  seek  vigorously  in  this  world — food,  drink,  sexual  satisfaction,  right 
on  through  the  long  list  of  satisfactions  of  the  flesh,  and  of  the  spirit  guided 
by  the  flesh — were  to  mean  eternal  pain,  very  soon  and  very  surely,  you  would 
not  be  much  attracted  by  the  doctrine  of  the  Golden  Mean.  You  could  not 
tell  yourself  comfortably  that  you  were  avoiding  in  matters  of  sex,  for  instance, 
the  neurotic  extremes  of  Don  Juan  on  one  hand  and  of  St.  Anthony  on  the 
other.  You  would  almost  certainly  do  your  best  to  imitate  St  Anthony. 

We  know  that  even  in  our  own  world,  in  which  it  is  still  easy  and  fashion- 
able to  be  worldly,  there  are  men  and  women  who  reject  the  world.  Our 
psychiatrists  tell  us  that — to  continue  the  specific,  concrete  example  of  mat- 
ters sexual — some  individuals  they,  and  we,  consider  abnormal  find  that  the 
act  of  sexual  intercourse  is  repugnant,  impossible,  hateful.  All  that  is  needed 
to  get  back  to  the  early  Christians  is  to  add  "immoral."  The  problem  of  under- 
standing the  origins  of  Christian  ethical  extremes  of  repudiation  of  "normal" 
and  "natural"  satisfactions  of  appetite  is  not  one  of  finding  individual  ascetics. 
The  Stoics,  even  the  Epicureans,  furnished  plenty  of  such  individuals.  It  is 
to  explain  why  such  extremes  got  incorporated  in  a  great  universalist  faith, 
became  fashionable,  to  use  an  accurate  word  with  no  derogatory  intent.  One 
can  give  a  vague  sociological  answer  of  the  sort  I  have  tried  to  give  above: 
in  a  sophisticated  egalitarian  world  the  very  fact  of  luxury  and  self-indulgence 
in  a  small  privileged  class  cast  discredit  on  the  flesh,  bred  a  contrary  asceti- 
cism. St.  Anthony  is  a  delayed  response  to  Messalina;  the  decencies  of  ordi- 
nary Christian  self-control  are  healthy  human  reactions  against  the  self- 
indulgence  of  the  masses  with  their  "bread  and  circuses."16 

Yet  the  historian  must  not  quite  dismiss  the  accident  of  greatness.  In 
these  earliest  formative  years  Christian  asceticism  or  antiworldliness  may 
have  taken  on  its  extreme  form  in  part  because  of  the  personalities  of  the  men 
who  made  it  so  much  more  than  another  Jewish  splinter  group.  It  may  even 
be  that  Christianity  has  had  such  heavy  but  on  the  whole  remarkably  success- 
ful going  with  some  of  the  facts  of  life  because  that  extraordinary  revolution- 
ary tamer  of  revolution,  St.  Paul,  held  that  it  is  better  to  marry  than  to  burn 
— and  held,  also,  that  even  those  who  desired  to  speak  with  tongues  should 
do  so  decently  and  in  order.17 

16  Anthony  is,  of  course,  much  later.  Reference  books  date  him  hopefully  2507-350? 
By  this  time  the  belief  in  an  immediate  Second  Coming  had  probably  lessened  greatly; 
earlier  ascetics  would  not  have  felt  the  need  to  go  to  the  desert,  in  their  view  as  im- 
permanent as  Alexandria  itself. 
17 1  Corinthians  7:9  and  14:39,  40. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

The  first  Christians  were  not — at  least,  many  of  them  were  not — respect- 
able people,  above  all,  not  tame,  moderate,  controlled  bourgeois.  The  per- 
petual indignation  with  which,  during  the  last  few  hundred  years,  idealistic 
Christians  and  idealistic  anti-Christians  have  proclaimed  and  deplored  the 
obvious  fact  that  most  Christians  are  respectable  and  even,  in  the  West, 
bourgeois  has  surely  a  justification  and  explanation;  Christianity  is  in  origin 
a  religion  of  protest  against  the  ordinary  life  of  men  on  earth,  against  I'homme 
moyen  sensuel  and  all  his  works.  Some  of  what  St.  Paul  reproaches  the  con- 
gregation at  Corinth  with  is  the  disorderly  enthusiasm,  the  emotional  running 
amok,  the  Holy  Rollerism  and  camp-meeting  frenzies  we  Americans  know 
so  well.  We  know  it  so  well  that  we  still  have  the  folk  belief  that  many  a  child, 
not  always  a  legitimate  child,  has  been  conceived  in  the  pious  excitement  of 
camp  meeting.  Men — and  saints — like  Paul,  who  prize  order,  know  well  that 
other  men  need  curbing.  They  know  that  sex  is  a  strong  and  potentially 
dangerous  appetite  that  can  lead  to  jealousy,  fighting,  disturbances  of  all 
sorts.  They  know  that  man  really  is  not  what  the  hopeful  made  of  Aristotle's 
famous  phrase,  a  "political  animal"  in  the  sense  the  philosophic  anarchist 
gives  the  words,  an  animal  whose  appetites,  desires,  impulses,  lead  him  auto- 
matically to  the  ethically  and  communally  good.  Christian  ethics  do  repress, 
surely  in  part  because  the  early  Christians,  perhaps  a  bit  more  than  the  run 
of  mankind,  needed  repressing. 

In  our  day,  when  Christianity,  even  among  the  seekers,  is  most  respect- 
able, the  violent  rebelliousness  of  early  Christianity  needs  underlining.  Many 
of  these  Christian  men  and  women,  in  spite  of  the  ethics  of  gentleness  clearly 
present  in  their  canons  of  belief,  were  firmly,  ferociously,  unparadoxically 
tough.  They  were  not,  even  at  their  gentlest,  "liberals,"  rationalists,  humani- 
tarians, not,  let  me  underline  and  repeat,  not  respectable.  They  could  hate 
as  well  as  love,  and  both  fiercely.  The  first  ascetics  did  not  go  to  the  desert 
as  a  social  service;  they  went  there  because  of  a  great  disgust.  It  took  a  long 
time  to  transmute  that  disgust  to  love,  love  for  one's  fellows  as  they  are.  There 
are  those  who  hold  that  the  transmuting  has  never  been  complete  in  Chris- 

Nietzsche,  of  course,  felt  this  profound  early  Christian  revulsion  against 
things  as  they  are,  above  all,  against  men  as  they  are,  and  sympathized  with 
it  more  than  he  liked  to  admit.  Established  Christianity  was  to  spread  its 
net  as  widely  as  Western  life  at  its  fullest  and  most  varied.  Nietzsche  was  no 
historian,  and  he  was  quite  wrong  in  identifying  all  Christianity  with  what 
he  called  "slave-morality,"  the  revolt  of  the  weak  against  the  strong.  But  the 


The  Beginnings  of  the  Judaeo-Christian  Tradition 

element  of  revolt  is  there,  unmistakable,  irrational,  as  mad  a  transvaluat 
of  values  as  any  the  West  has  experienced.  One  little  detail:  the  "poor"  of 
famous  phrase  we  know  as  the  "poor  in  spirit"  is,  in  New  Testament  Gre 
the  word  TTTCOXOS,  ptochos,  or  cringer,  hence  beggar,  a  damning  word  inde 
not  the  more  usual  Tre'v^s,  penes,  the  working  poor  man,  a  word  no  m 
scornful  than  most  such  by  which  we  in  the  West  commonly  reflect  our  & 
disagreement  with  the  spirit  of  the  Sermon  on  the  Mount.  But  the  good  m 
remains  literally:  blessed  are  the  cringing,  the  cowering,  the  beggars,  in  spi 
The  Goodspeed  "American  translation"  makes  this  "blessed  are  those  ^ 
feel  their  spiritual  need."  Talk  about  bowdlerizing!  Liddell  and  Scott  cc 
ment  on  TH-O^OS,  "the  word  .  .  .  always  had  a  bad  sense  until  it  was 
nobled  in  the  Gospels."  They  are  right,  and  Nietzsche  wrong:  the  ITT&>XOI 
Trveu/xart,  become  the  poor  in  spirit  or  even  those  who  feel  their  spiritual  ne 
have  indeed  been  ennobled.  But  they  seem  hardly  cringers  any  more;  they 
Bernard  of  Clairvaux,  Innocent  HI,  Loyola,  Calvin,  Jonathan  Edwards.  Tl 
are  not  even  any  longer  near  those  mystical  quietist  goals,  theoria,  atarcu 


I  have  in  the  preceding  pages  done  violence  to  the  modern  principle  tl 
"facts"  should  first  of  all  be  established  before  they  are  discussed.  Actua 
the  facts  of  early  Christian  asceticism,  otherworldliness,  revulsion  agai 
pagan  license  are  well-established.  And  they  are  extremes,  heroic  extremes 
so  heroic  that  calmer  leadership  soon  got  to  work  to  tame  them.  St.  Sime 
Stylites  will  do  as  one  example,  up  there  on  his  pillar  sixty  feet  high  in  i 
Syrian  sun  (the  top  does  appear  to  have  been  railed  in)  eating,  drinki 
sleeping,  defecating — all  very  little — and  preaching  a  great  deal  year  uj 
year.  The  excesses  of  the  monastics  suggest,  indeed,  that  the  old  Greek  sp 
of  the  agon  had  been  transferred  to  a  sport  that  would  hardly  have  appea 
to  the  Greeks  of  Pericles's  Athens. 

The  ideal  of  antiworldliness  in  conventional  Christianity  is  hard  enoi 
for  the  innocent  rationalist  to  accept;  monasticism  even  in  its  tempered  la 
Western  form  with  the  Benedictines  must  seem  to  him  regrettable  nonser 
We  should  have  no  difficulty  understanding  why  the  amazing  feats  of 

is  The  verse  is  Matthew  5:3.  The  Goodspeed  New  Testament:  An  American  Tran 
tion,  Chicago,  University  of  Chicago  Press,  1923;  Liddell  and  Scott,  Greek-Eng 
Lexicon,  8th  ed.,  revised,  New  York,  Hampers,  1897,  s.v.,  TTTUX°S,  P- 1342. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

earlier  monks  and  hermits  disgusted  historians  like  Lecky,  formed  without 
benefit  of  Freud. 

There  is,  perhaps,  no  phase  in  the  moral  history  of  mankind  of  a  deeper  or  more 
painful  interest  than  this  ascetic  epidemic.  A  hideous,  sordid,  and  emaciated 
maniac,  without  knowledge,  without  patriotism,  without  natural  affection,  passing 
his  life  in  a  long  routine  of  useless  and  atrocious  self-torture,  and  quailing  before 
the  ghastly  phantoms  of  his  delirious  brain,  had  become  the  ideal  of  the  nations 
which  had  known  the  writings  of  Plato  and  Cicero  and  the  lives  of  Socrates  and 
Cato.  For  about  two  centuries,  the  hideous  maceration  of  the  body  was  regarded 
as  the  highest  proof  of  excellence.  St.  Jerome  declares,  with  a  thrill  of  admiration, 
how  he  had  seen  a  monk,  who  for  thirty  years  had  lived  exclusively  on  a  small  por- 
tion of  barley  bread  and  of  muddy  water;  another,  who  lived  in  a  hole  and  never 
ate  more  than  five  figs  for  his  daily  repast;  a  third,  who  cut  his  hair  only  on  Easter 
Sunday,  who  never  washed  his  clothes,  who  never  changed  his  tunic  till  it  fell  to 
pieces,  who  starved  himself  till  his  eyes  grew  dim,  and  his  skin  "like  pumice  and 
stone,"  and  whose  merits,  shown  by  these  austerities,  Homer  himself  would  be 
unable  to  recount.19 

Lecky  himself  goes  on  recounting  instance  after  instance.  They  have  the 
accuracy,  and  the  misleading  quality,  of  any  modern  series  of  faits  divers  and 
horror  stories.  It  is  unfair,  and  unsound  psychologically,  to  equate  St.  Simeon 
Stylites  and  Kelly  the  flagpole  sitter,  the  record-breaking  monk  with  the 
record-breaking  sophomore.  Yet  there  is  a  simple  residue  of  truth  in  such 
comparisons.  Early  Christian  asceticism  does  display  this  element  of  paradox, 
the  obvious  willingness  of  the  man  who  flees  the  world  to  accept  the  wonder- 
ing attention  of  the  world.  These  mortifiers  of  the  flesh  look  in  the  long  per- 
spective of  Christian  experience  to  be  dangerously  close  to  the  great  Chris- 
tian sin  of  pride.  They  are,  however,  in  some  sense  victims  of  the  thirst  of  the 
masses  for  wonders  and  wonder-workers. 

Yet  the  outsider  may  be  safer  if  he  notes  simply  that  historical  Christi- 
anity has  always  produced  men,  women,  and  movements  that  reach  out  and 
over  the  bounds  of  any  disciplined  good,  even  the  good  of  humility,  into  the 
wilds,  the  depths.  At  any  rate,  there  is  no  use  in  our  adding  to  the  rationalist 
horror  of  the  philosophes  at  the  spectacle  of  the  filth-covered  anchorite  the 
smug  satisfaction  of  popularized  psychiatry  at  so  evident  a  display  of  its 
rightness.  It  does  not  seem  enough  to  appeal  to  any  of  the  catchwords,  not 
even  to  "psychosis."  At  most,  we  may  concede  to  modern  intellectual  fashion 
that  the  anchorites  who  fled  the  world  were  maladjusted  in  that  world,  per- 
haps that  their  flight  was  a  sublimation  of  drives  frustrated  in  that  world. 

19  W.E.H.  Lecky,  History  of  European  Morals,  Vol.  II,  pp.  107-108. 


The  Beginnings  of  the  Judaeo-Christian  Tradition 

Later,  more  disciplined  monasticism  may  even  look  to  some  of  us  a  morally 
better  sublimation  for  frustrated  virtue  and  consequent  great  moral  disgust 
than,  shall  we  say,  writing  a  newspaper  column. 

The  rush  to  the  desert — it  really  was  almost  a  rush — must  seem  in  part  a 
fashion,  a  minor  mass  movement  in  which  many  took  part  because  men  are 
imitative  animals.  But  the  leaders  would  have  been  sure  that  God  had  sent 
them  to  the  desert  that  they  might  bring  home  to  their  fellows  how  sinful  the 
world  had  grown,  how  much  in  need  of  no  mere  reform,  no  mere  preaching, 
no  mere  conferences,  but  of  root-and-branch  destruction  of  the  cancerous 
growth  of  worldliness.  Perhaps  we  can  leave  it  at  that. 

Of  course,  not  even  at  the  height  of  the  movement  to  the  desert  were  the 
masses  of  Christians  involved.  For  us  it  is  perhaps  more  important  to  try 
to  estimate  what  degree  of  personal  asceticism,  of  repudiation  of  the  world 
of  the  flesh,  penetrated  into  the  rank  and  file.  Clearly  no  good  answer  is 
possible,  but  it  seems  likely  that  in  the  first  few  centuries  the  drive  of  Chris- 
tian asceticism  did  go  wider  and  deeper  than  it  has  gone  since,  save  perhaps  in 
such  renewals  of  this  element  of  Christianity  as  Calvinist  Puritanism — and 
Calvinism,  as  we  shall  see,  was  not  ascetic  after  the  manner  of  the  early 
Christians.  This  early  asceticism  trusted  no  appetite,  not  even  the  simple 
appetite  for  food.  When  Tertullian  writes  that  "through  love  of  eating  love 
of  impurity  finds  passage,"  we  may  well  believe  that  many  of  the  faithful 
did  find  all  bodily  enjoyments  dangerous,  all  potential  passages  for  evil.20 

Christian  asceticism,  then,  is  real  and  extensive.  Certainly  most  Christians 
did  not  pursue  the  ideal  into  saintly  depths.  But  the  tone,  the  coloration,  of 
ordinary  lives  was  altered  from  the  tone  that  had  been  imparted  by  the  very 
effort  of  the  pagans  to  attain  the  beautiful-and-good.  A  dignified,  rhetorical, 
but,  one  feels,  sincere  avowal  of  Christian  asceticism  comes  out  in  the  poetry 
— classical  in  form — of  the  convert  Paulinus: 

Time  was  when,  not  with  equal  force,  but  with  equal  ardor,  I  could  join  with 
thee  in  summoning  the  deaf  Phoebus  [Apollo]  from  his  cave  in  Delphi.  .  .  .  Now 
another  force,  a  mightier  God,  subdues  my  soul.  He  forbids  me  give  up  my  time 
to  the  vanities  of  leisure  or  business,  and  the  literature  of  the  fable,  that  I  may 
obey  his  laws  and  see  his  light,  which  is  darkened  by  the  cunning  skill  of  the 
sophist,  and  the  figments  of  the  poet  who  fills  the  soul  with  vanity  and  falsehood, 
and  only  trains  the  tongue.21 

20  Tertullian,  De  Jejunis,  Chap.  I. 

21  Carmina,  x:  22.30.  Quoted  and  translated  in  Dill,  Roman  Society  in  the  Last  Cen- 
tury of  the  Western  Empire,  p.  398. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

Paulinus  found  "business"  a  vanity.  We  come  to  the  old  accusation  that 
Christianity  unmanned  men,  and  women,  and  made  them  unfit  for  the  world's 
work.  It  is  true  that  the  monks  fled  this  world  in  all  its  aspects.  It  is  probably 
true  that  for  some  centuries  Christianity  did  turn  many  less  radical  rebels 
against  the  daily  round  of  duty  done — civic,  soldierly  duty.  Tertullian  can 
always  be  trusted  to  blurt  it  out  plain:  nee  ulla  magis  res  aliena,  quam  pub- 
lica.22  The  first  Christians  were  pacifists  of  a  sort,  pacifists  who  would  not  fight 
worldly  figftts.  There  are  classic  texts  in  the  Sermon  on  the  Mount: 

Blessed  are  the  peacemakers:  for  they  shall  be  called  children  of  God. 

but  I  say  unto  you,  Resist  not  him  that  is  evil:  but  whosoever  smiteth  thee  on  thy 
right  cheek,  turn  to  him  the  other  also. 

but  I  say  unto  you,  Love  your  enemies,  bless  them  that  persecute  you:23 
Paul  himself  occasionally  sounds  like  a  moderate  pacifist: 

Render  to  no  man  evil  for  evil.  Take  thought  of  things  honourable  in  the  sight 
of  all  men.  If  it  be  possible,  as  much  as  in  you  lieth,  be  at  peace  with  all  men. 
Avenge  not  yourselves,  beloved,  but  give  place  unto  wrath:  for  it  is  written, 
Vengeance  belongeth  unto  me;  I  will  repay,  saith  the  Lord  But  if  thine  enemy 
hunger,  feed  him;  if  he  thirst,  give  him  to  drink:  for  in  so  doing  thou  shalt 
heap  coals  of  fire  upon  his  head.  Be  not  overcome  of  evil,  but  overcome  evil  with 

Yet  Christianity  was  not  and  is  not  faith  in  passive  resistance,  to  say 
nothing  of  Laodicaean  or  skeptical  lying  down  before  the  facts  of  life.  The 
charge  to  the  apostles  is  the  familiar  text  to  bring  up  against  the  Sermon  on 
the  Mount: 

Think  not  that  I  am  come  to  send  peace  on  the  earth:  I  came  not  to  send  peace, 
but  a  sword.  For  I  came  to  set  a  man  at  variance  against  his  father,  and  the  daugh- 
ter against  her  mother,  and  the  daughter  in  law  against  her  mother  in  law:  and  a 
man's  foes  shall  be  they  of  his  own  household.  He  that  loveth  father  or  mother 
more  than  me  is  not  worthy  of  me;  and  he  that  loveth  son  or  daughter  more 
than  me  is  not  worthy  of  me.25 

We  have  to  get  beyond  the  balancing  of  texts  one  against  another,  Christians 
for  the  most  part  have  never  really  believed  that  the  truths  of  their  faith 

22  "No  thing  more  alien  [to  the  Christian]  than  the  public  thing."  Tertullian,  Apolo- 
geticus,  Chap.  38.3. 

23  Matthew  5:9,  39,  44. 
2*  Romans  12:17-21. 
25  Matthew  10:34-37. 


The  Beginnings  of  the  Judaeo-Christian  Tradition 

would  impose  themselves  magically  on  the  wicked  of  the  world.  The  many 
figures  of  struggle,  even  of  fighting  with  the  sword,  so  obvious  in  the  New 
Testament  and  among  the  Fathers,  we  know  historically  turned  out  to  be  no 
mere  figures  of  speech.  At  least  as  early  as  the  Arian  controversy  at  the  end 
of  the  third  century  Christians  were  resorting  to  bodily  violence  to  further 
the  work  of  God.  Such  conduct  ought  not  to  surprise  and  shock  us  as  it 
appeared  to  surprise  and  shock  the  Victorians.26 

It  is  a  clear  induction  from  Western  history  that  the  old  spirit  of  the 
Homeric  agon  is  not  subdued  but  heightened  when  the  individual  fights,  not 
primarily  or  solely  for  his  honor  or  his  prestige,  but  for  the  Right,  for  the 
word  of  God,  for  Fatherland,  for  the  word  of  Dialectical  Materialism.  From 
martyrdom  to  crusading  is  but  a  step,  an  easy  and  a  natural  step,  for  martyr- 
dom itself  is  a  form  of  crusading.  I  do  not  mean  here  to  make  the  cheap  asser- 
tion that  the  Christian  who  turns,  and  keeps  turning,  the  other  cheek  is  merely 
using  "tactics"  he  will  change  when  he  thinks  he  or  his  cause  will  profit.  I 
mean,  rather,  that  the  Christian  drive  toward  realizing  the  good  right  here 
on  earth  is  so  strong  as  to  amount  to  a  ruling  passion;  the  Christian  cannot 
avoid  resisting  evil.27 

Otherworldliness  running  to  the  extremes  of  asceticism  and  even,  among 
ordinary  men,  to  an  indifference  to  the  call  of  citizenship  is  surely  present  in 
early  Christianity.  So,  too,  to  complete  the  catalogue  of  attitudes  alien  to 
most  of  us  today,  is  what  must  be  called  the  anti-intellectualism  of  early 
Christianity.  The  later  Greco-Roman  formal  culture,  as  we  have  noted 
above,  was  strongly  tinged  with  rationalism.  Christianity  was  in  the  beginning 
a  faith  of  the  poor  and  humble  who  disliked  and  distrusted  the  higher  educa- 
tion and  the  higher  educated  of  their  time;  it  was  a  transcendental  faith  that 
could  not  for  a  moment  stomach  such  fashionable  beliefs  as  Euhemerism  nor, 
perhaps  even  more  repugnant  because  so  high-minded,  Stoic  or  Epicurean 
deism.  The  texts  are  there,  St.  Paul  himself  providing  some  of  the  best: 

If  any  man  thinketh  that  he  is  wise  among  you  in  this  world,  let  him  become  a 

26  See  Westermarck,  Origin  and  Development  of  the  Moral  Ideas,  Vol.  I,  p.  348  ff., 
and  especially  his  back  reference  to  Lecky,  p.  349  n.  Lecky  had  argued  that  it  was 
only  the  influence  of  the  struggle  with  Islam  that  turned  the  Christian  church  from 
merely  "condoning"  war  to  "consecrating"  it. 

27  Note  the  trouble  Matthew  5:39  has  always  given.  The  Greek  Trorqpos,  poneros,  is 
literally  "evil."  But  the  text  "resist  not  evil"  has  been  interpreted  commonly  as  mean- 
ing do  not  resist  with  actual  physical  violence  the  man  who  is  doing  an  evil  thing. 
The  Christian  must  resist  evil,  regarded  as  what  we  moderns  would  think  of  as  a 
"force,"  just  as  he  must  hate  sin;  he  must  love,  as  ultimately  images  of  God,  all  men, 
sinners  or  saints.  Christianity  is  an  exacting  faith. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

fool,  that  he  may  become  wise.  For  the  wisdom  of  this  world  is  foolishness  with 
God.  For  it  is  written,  He  taketh  the  wise  in  their  craftiness:  and  again,  The 
Lord  knoweth  the  thoughts  of  the  wise,  that  they  are  vain.28 

The  Fathers  are  more  explicit.  Here  is  the  third-century  Didascalia  Aposto- 

This  says  bluntly,  "Have  nothing  to  do  with  pagan  books,"  and  gives  some  rather 
surprising  grounds  for  this  injunction.  What  connection  can  any  Christian  have 
with  all  the  errors  they  contain?  He  has  the  Word  of  God — what  else  does  he 
want?  The  Bible  not  only  provides  for  the  supernatural  life  but  for  all  cultural 
need  too!  Is  it  history  he  wants?  There  are  the  Books  of  Kings.  Eloquence,  poetry? 
The  Prophets!  Lyrics?  The  Psalms!  Cosmology?  Genesis!  Laws,  morality?  The 
glorious  Law  of  God!  But  all  these  outlandish  books  that  come  from  the  Devil — 
they  must  be  hurled  away.29 

Yet,  fixed  though  the  eyes  of  the  early  Christian  were  on  the  next  world, 
it  is  clear  that  he  sought  to  lessen  actual  suffering  in  this  one.  We  moderns 
should  have  no  trouble  recognizing  the  very  real  aid  and  comfort  the  evangel 
— in  Greek,  "good  news" — brought  simply  in  terms  of  psychological  satis- 
faction. Christianity  at  its  minimal  was  surely  a  triumph  of  faith  healing  not 
remotely  rivaled  by  the  best  we  moderns  have  been  able  to  do  outside  or  on 
the  margin  of  organized  Christianity.  Whatever  their  hopes  of  a  Second  Com- 
ing, the  early  Christian  also  took  some  care  of  the  animal  man.  The  apostles 
themselves  began  the  communistic  sharing  of  things  of  this  world  as  of  the 
next  which  was  to  be  the  great  strength  of  the  new  faith: 

And  all  that  believed  were  together,  and  had  all  things  common;  and  they  sold 
their  possessions  and  goods,  and  parted  them  to  all,  according  as  any  man  had 
need.  And  day  by  day,  continuing  stedfastly  with  one  accord  in  the  temple,  and 
breaking  bread  from  house  to  house,  they  did  take  their  food  with  gladness  and 
singleness  of  heart,  praising  God,  and  having  favour  with  all  the  people.  And  the 
Lord  added  to  them  day  by  day  those  that  were  being  saved.30 

Charity  in  something  like  our  modern  sense  was  almost  from  the  first  a 
part  of  Christian  ethics.  That  it  was  later  taken  up  into  high  theology  as  part 
of  the  doctrine  of  good  works  does  not  by  any  means  lessen  its  reality  or  its 
importance.  The  Calvinists  did  hold  that  the  Biblical  "the  poor  ye  have  al- 

28 1  Corinthians  3: 18-21. 

29  H.  I.  Marrou,  A  History  of  Education  in  Antiquity,  p.  320.  Marrou  on  pp.  318-321 

handles  this  subject  briefly  and  thoroughly.  For  more  detail,  see  C.  L.  Ellspermann, 

The  Attitude  of  the  Early  Christian  Fathers  towards  Pagan  Literature  and  Learning, 

Washington,  D.C.,  Catholic  University  of  America,  Patristic  Studies,  Vol.  LXXXH, 


so  Acts  2:44-47. 


The  Beginnings  of  the  Judaeo-Christian  Tradition 

ways  with  you"  had  an  ethical  as  well  as  a  cosmological  implication,  poverty 
being  a  proper  punishment  as  well  as  a  God-made  necessity;  in  their  way, 
the  nineteenth-century  utilitarians,  who  were  most  dubiously  Christian,  went 
even  further,  holding  that  charity  was  both  ineffective,  for  it  never  really 
"solved"  the  problem  of  poverty,  and  also  most  damaging  to  its  recipients, 
who  were  kept  enough  alive  to  procreate  more  poor,  quite  contrary  to  the 
intentions  of  Organic  Evolution.  But  in  spite  of  all  this,  over  the  centuries 
Christian  ethics  has  enjoined  the  feeding  of  the  hungry,  the  clothing  of  the 
naked,  the  alleviation  of  pain,  the  kindly  treatment  of  the  stranger.  There 
is  a  humanitarian  strain  in  Christianity,  though  there  it  clearly  is  feebler,  or, 
at  any  rate,  more  resigned,  than  in  the  religion  of  the  Enlightenment. 

We  are  back  to  Nietzsche.  Christianity  did  set  up  as  virtues  much  that 
looks  in  common  sense  quite  the  opposite  of  the  warrior  virtues  of  Homer 
— and  of  Moses. 

Most  gladly  therefore  will  I  rather  glory  in  my  weaknesses,  that  the  strength  of 
Christ  may  rest  upon  me.  Wherefore  I  take  pleasure  in  weaknesses,  in  injuries,  in 
necessities,  in  persecutions,  in  distresses,  for  Christ's  sake:  for  when  I  am  weak, 
then  am  I  strong.31 

Christianity  did  urge  that  love  should  replace  rivalry;  it  did  seek  to  lessen 
the  competitiveness  of  the  classical  agonistic  view  of  life.  In  modern  terms, 
there  was  in  early  Christianity  a  strong  vein  of  insistence  on  what  we  should 
call  co-operation,  altruism,  even,  perhaps,  social  security.  I  must  come 
shortly  again  to  the  problem  of  the  paradoxical  nature  of  Christianity;  but,  for 
the  moment,  let  me  simply  say  that  Christianity  does  sound  firmly  a  note  not 
so  clearly  heard  before  in  the  West:  the  note  of  the  agape,  the  lovefeast,  the 
common  weal  that  is  common  woe  to  none,  not  even  the  outsider. 

The  note  is  sounded  most  clearly  in  the  Beatitudes,  which  must  be  read 
along  with  the  Ten  Commandments: 

Blessed  are  the  poor  in  spirit:  for  theirs  is  the  kingdom  of  heaven. 
Blessed  are  they  that  mourn:  for  they  shall  be  comforted. 
Blessed  are  the  meek:  for  they  shall  inherit  the  earth. 

Blessed  are  they  that  hunger  and  thirst  after  righteousness:  for  they  shall  be 

Blessed  are  the  merciful:  for  they  shall  obtain  mercy. 

Blessed  are  the  pure  in  heart:  for  they  shall  see  God. 

Blessed  are  the  peacemakers:  for  they  shall  be  called  children  of  God. 

Blessed  are  they  that  have  been  persecuted  for  righteousness'  sake:  for  theirs 

si  H  Corinthians  12:9-10. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

is  the  kingdom  of  heaven.  Blessed  are  ye  when  men  shall  reproach  you,  and  perse- 
cute you,  and  say  all  manner  of  evil  against  you  falsely,  for  my  sake.32 

The  two  codes — if  one  may  call  the  Beatitudes  a  code — are  both  parts  of 
the  Christian  ethical  inheritance,  and  though  the  sentimentalist  is  likely  to 
find  the  one  affirmative  and  kindly,  the  other  negative  and  harsh,  they  do 
belong  together. 


Historical  Christianity  is  no  monolithic  faith.  It  is  not  sufficient  to  say 
that  it  is  a  complex  set  of  beliefs  and  practices  always  subject  to  heresies  and 
splintering.  One  must  note  that  Christianity  is  a  religion  full  of  quite  deliberate 
paradoxes  of  the  emotions: 

He  that  findeth  his  lif e  shall  lose  it;  and  he  that  loseth  his  lif e  for  my  sake  shall  find 

But  many  shall  be  last  that  are  first;  and  first  that  are  last.33 

The  Fathers,  too,  were  fond  of  this  striking  weapon  of  paradox,  so  suited  to 
the  defiant  challenge  Christianity  makes  to  common  sense.  Tertullian  will  do: 
Cerium  est,  quia  impossibile  est?* 

The  verbal  and  literary  paradox,  which  is  not  quite  the  paradox  of  the 
logician,  is  likely  to  be  thought  today  to  be  somewhat  cerebral,  typical  of  the 
way  a  mind  like  Oscar  Wilde's  or  Aldous  Huxley's  works.  In  high 
philosophy  it  smacks  of  the  Hegelian  thesis-antithesis-synthesis.  But  in  the 
logic  of  the  emotions  this  sort  of  paradox  simply  expresses  the  human  condi- 
tion, the  eternal  "I  hate  and  I  love  .  .  .  and  suffer."  In  Christianity  the  para- 
dox can  be  stated  simply  and  tritely:  the  Christian  can  neither  accept  nor 
deny  this  harsh  world  of  the  flesh,  cannot — save  for  a  few  mystics  who  are 
perhaps  not  really  Christian — feel  this  world  as  illusion,  as  evil,  as  some- 
thing to  be  wholly  transcended.  Neither,  of  course,  can  he  accept  this  world 
as  pleasant,  or  interesting,  or  amusing,  or,  indeed,  as  quite  necessary  and 
permanent,  as  it  stands,  a  mere  product  of  historical  necessity. 

Against  the  extremes  of  otherworldly  ethics  that  I  have  brought  forward 

32  Matthew  5: 3-11. 

33  Matthew  10:39;  19:30. 

34  Tertullian,  De  Came  Christi.  "It  is  certain  because  it  is  impossible."  This  form  is 
much  more  powerful  than,  indeed,  quite  different  in  meaning  from,  the  corruption 
often  quoted,  Credo  quia  impossibile  (or,  in  some  versions,  absurdum),  "I  believe 
because  it  is  impossible"  (or  absurd).  I  do  not  wish  to  be  understood  as  citing  Tertul- 
lian as  a  typical  Christian,  but  he  certainly  is  a  good  Christian. 


The  Beginnings  of  the  Judaeo-Christian  Tradition 

above,  the  historian  can  bring  out  many  characteristic  Christian  compromises, 
even  from  quite  early  days.  One  may  argue  that  Christ  himself  had  no  the- 
ology. It  is  quite  clear  that  there  was  in  early  Christianity  a  strong  current 
of  distrust  of  things  of  the  mind,  a  preference  for  the  wisdom  of  babes  and 
sucklings.  Yet  within  a  few  generations  Christianity  had  developed  a  subtle 
and  complex  theology  which  enlisted  the  best  minds  of  Greco-Roman  culture. 
The  Fathers  were  worried  over  the  temptations  set  forth  in  the  pagan  classics, 
but  even  so  Rousseauistic  or  Carlylean  a  character  as  Tertullian  held  that  the 
pagan  authors  simply  had  to  be  mastered  if  the  new  church  were  to  maintain 
proper  educational  standards.  As  for  St.  Jerome,  though  he  regretted  that  he 
had  read  Cicero,  he  continued  to  write  a  fine  polished  Latin;  one  suspects 
that  he  didn't  really  regret  Cicero.35 

Extreme  pacifism  was  early  qualified,  and  by  the  time  of  St.  Augustine 
this  foremost  of  Western  founding  fathers  could  write  that  when  Christ  said 
"all  they  that  take  the  sword  shall  perish  with  the  sword"  he  referred  to  such 
persons  only  as  arm  themselves  to  shed  the  blood  of  others  without  either 
command  or  permission  of  any  lawful  authority — in  short,  to  common-law 
murderers  and  unsuccessful  wagers  of  civil  war,  not  to  legitimate  soldiers  or 
policemen.36  The  formula  had  been  found  much  earlier,  early  enough  to  get 
into  the  canon,  though  it  is  surely  unlikely  that  Christ  himself  found  it: 
"Render  therefore  unto  Caesar  the  things  that  are  Caesar's;  and  unto  God 
the  things  that  are  God's."37  Christians  could  and  did  fight  in  the  armies  of 
the  Empire.  But  the  swing  was  not  unlimited;  they  could  never  fight  in  the 
gladiatorial  games,  never,  as  good  Christians,  fully  identify  themselves  with 
the  pleasures  of  the  Roman  people. 

Even — perhaps,  above  all — on  sex  the  Christians  made  their  compro- 
mises. After  all,  St.  Paul's  most  famous  pronouncement  on  the  matter  did  not 
enjoin  total  continence;  marriage  became  early,  and  remained,  one  of  the 
Christian  sacraments.  Among  the  highly  placed  of  the  Christian  world  the 
line  between  Caesar  and  Christ  was  drawn  rather  freely:  the  Christian  em- 
perors and  empresses  were  for  the  most  part  not  appreciably  more  chaste  than 
had  been  the  pagans.  But,  again,  the  swing  was  not  complete.  Even  for  ordi- 
nary folk  Christian  moral  standards  in  sex  relations  were  of  a  Hebraic  strict- 
ness. Critics  find  a  continued  harshness  toward  the  sinner  who  strayed  outside 

35  On  Christianity  and  classical  education,  see  Marrou,  History  of  Education  in  An- 
tiquity, Chap.  DC. 

36  Augustine,  Contra  Faustum  in  Migne,  Patrologiae  cursus  completus  (Latin  series), 

37  Matthew  22:21. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

the  permitted  connubial  intercourse.  Westermarck,  for  instance,  points  out 
that  if  Christian  feeling  for  the  sacredness  of  the  individual  soul  made  of 
infanticide  a  crime  punishable  by  death,  and  even  perhaps  lessened  the  num- 
ber of  actual  infanticides,  Christian  feeling  for  the  enormities  of  fornication 
led  to  great  harshness  toward  the  mother  of  illegitimate  offspring.38 

Christians  have  over  the  centuries  conducted  themselves  variously  in 
matters  sexual;  and  even  Christian  ethical  principles  as  to  sex  are  by  no  means 
monolithic.  We  may  as  well  face  at  this  point  the  anti-Christian's  charge  that 
Christianity  has  by  its  ideas  on  the  subject  perverted  a  fine,  natural,  simple 
instinct:  without  Christianity,  we  should  all  come  of  age,  and  stay  of  age, 
serenely  and  enjoyably,  as  in  Samoa.  If  this  and  similar  charges  are  made 
from  a  naive  "naturalistic"  base  of  belief  that  if  men,  and  women,  would  but 
let  their  natural  instincts  guide  them  in  sexual  relations  all  would  be  well, 
they  start  from  nonsense  and  must  end  in  nonsense.  Just  as  a  sport,  sexual 
intercourse  requires  for  success  acquired  skills;  poor  Homo  sapiens  cannot 
even  swim  without  lessons.  But  sex  is  much  more  than  a  sport,  and  the  regu- 
lation, in  some  senses  even  the  suppression,  of  sexual  relations  has  been  the 
concern  of  all  societies  and  all  ethical  systems.  All  this  should  be  truism. 

But  has  not  Christianity  suppressed  too  much,  made  learning  sexual  skills 
more  difficult,  turned  women,  whose  physiological  evolution  seems  to  have 
inclined  them  on  an  average  away  from  easy  sexual  satisfaction,  into  actual 
frigidity?  I  do  not  think  we  know  nearly  enough  about  the  physiology,  psy- 
chology, and  sociology  of  sex  in  humans  to  answer  that  question.  Purely  from 
the  record,  it  must  be  said  that  there  are  Greek  and  Jewish  precedents  in  our 
own  tradition  for  the  rigorous  control  of  sex  conduct,  and  for  feelings,  senti- 
ments, that  the  business  of  sex  is  in  some  sense  shameful,  and  certainly  is  so 
if  it  is  public  or  promiscuous.  And  to  anticipate,  it  must  be  noted  that  many, 
many  Enlightened  anti-Christians  of  various  freethinking  sects  since  1700 
have  been  at  least  as  prudish,  as  repressive,  about  sex  as  any  Christian.  John 
Stuart  Mill  is,  perhaps,  an  extreme  example,  but  there  he  is.39  As  it  has  worked 

38  Westermarck,  Christianity  and  Morals,  New  York,  Macmillan,  1939,  p.  241.  The 
theologians  had  difficulty  over  the  problem  as  to  just  when  the  immortal  soul  entered 
the  embryo.  They  finally  decided  that  forty  days  after  conception  the  embryo  in- 
formatics was  endowed  with  a  soul  and  became  the  embryo  formatus,  the  killing  of 
which  was  a  crime  punishable  by  death.  See  Westennarck,  Christianity  and  Morals, 
pp.  243-244. 

39  Mill's  Mrs.  Taylor  is  surely  the  most  high-minded  of  frigid  females  we  know  from 
the  record — and  somehow  high-minded  frigidity  seems  much  worse  than  the  merely 
neurotic  kind.  See  for  the  curious  story  of  Mill's  nonsex  life  F.  A.  Hayek,  John 
Stuart  Mill  and  Harriet  Taylor,  London,  Routledge  and  Kegan  Paul,  1951. 


The  Beginnings  of  the  Judaeo-Christian  Tradition 

out,  ordinary  parish  Christianity  has  allowed  for  a  fine  range  of  sexual 
"naturalness,"  notably  in  the  great  Christian  centuries  of  medieval  times.  I 
incline  to  the  belief  that  recurring  phases  of  what  the  vulgar  call  "Puritanism" 
in  sex  matters  are  in  Western  history  usually  symptoms  of  deep-seated  social 
problems — as  are  recurring  phases  of  widespread  sexual  license. 

Finally,  it  is  true  enough  that  historic  Christianity  has  been  what  the 
Enlightened  would  have  to  call  antifeminist.  Christianity  has  blamed  a  lot  on 
Eve,  and  taken  it  out  on  her  daughters.  But  here  again,  only  a  very  unhis- 
torically-minded  polemicist  can  maintain  that  Christianity  has  elevated  man 
and  lowered  woman  more  than  did  the  earlier  cultures  from  which  it  derived, 
and  into  which  it  breathed  new  life,  notably  the  Jewish  and  the  Hellenic. 
Feminism  as  a  faith  is  a  product  of  the  eighteenth-century  Enlightenment. 
Roman  women  in  the  upper  classes  of  the  Empire  did  gain  an  extraordinary 
degree  of  personal  freedom;  but  Christianity  did  not  end  a  nonexistent  Roman 
feminism,  for  the  old  classical  culture  was  definitely  a  masculine  one.  Here, 
as  throughout,  the  never-quite-effaced  Christian  doctrine  of  the  equality  of 
all  souls,  even  female  souls,  preserved  a  base  from  which  the  Enlightenment 
was  later  to  work.  And  it  should  be  obvious  that  anti-Christian  writers  have, 
by  their  emphasis  on  some  monkish  writings,  greatly  exaggerated  the  extent 
to  which  Christianity  condemned  women  as  women,  and  blamed  them  as  the 
source  of  evil.  Ordinary  parish  Christianity,  the  Christianity  of  the  cure  of 
souls,  if  it  wanted  women  kept  in  their  place,  also  wanted  that  place  to  be  a 
dignified  and  honorable  one,  far  nearer  the  old  Roman  than  to  the  old 
Athenian  place  of  woman. 

Here,  too,  Western  Christianity  made  one  of  its  most  fateful  compromises: 
complete  celibacy,  impossible  and,  therefore,  undesirable,  for  the  many,  was 
made  necessary  for  the  clergy.  There  was  for  centuries  a  struggle  within  the 
Roman  Church  over  this  requirement,  and  the  matter  was  not  finally  settled 
for  the  lower  secular  clergy  in  the  West  until  the  great  Cluniac  reforms  of  the 
eleventh  century.  But  almost  from  the  first,  as  the  clergy  began  in  practice  and 
in  law  to  be  distinguished  from  the  laity,  there  were  voices  to  urge  that  celi- 
bacy is  essential  to  the  priesthood.  Yet  here  again  the  church  as  established 
avoided  the  extreme.  It  accepted,  or,  rather,  made,  a  distinction  between 
clergy  and  laity;  that  distinction  was  real,  tangible,  and  important,  but  at  the 
bottom  it  was  a  functional  distinction,  as  a  distinction  of  status,  though  a  very 
holy  one,  not  a  distinction  of  kind  or  essence;  nor  was  it,  since  the  ranks  of 
the  clergy  were  never  wholly  closed  to  the  poorest  lad  with  a  vocation,  even 
in  the  less  democratic  phases  of  the  church,  a  distinction  of  caste.  The  Cath-« 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

olic  priest  was  held  to  more  rigorous  standards  of  conduct  than  the  layman, 
and  he  had  privileges  that  went  with  his  responsibilities;  but  he  was  not  a 
different  sort  of  being,  not  fundamentally  holier,  than  the  layman.  The  saint 
is  holier  than  the  ordinary  Christian;  but  the  church  has  carefully  avoided 
canonizing  anyone  as  saint  until  after  death.  The  Catholic  Church  avoided 
here  the  Manichaean,  and,  later,  Albigensian,  heresy,  in  which  a  caste  of 
perfect  ones,  Cathari,  was  so  sharply  separated  theologically  from  the  com- 
mon run  of  the  faithful  as  to  seem  different  beings,  a  caste  in  the  Eastern 
sense  that  the  West  has  always  repudiated  in  ideal,  and,  therefore,  in  the 
long,  long  run,  in  practice. 

The  church  has  avoided  the  trap  of  formal  dualism  in  theology  and  meta- 
physics. The  simple — relatively  simple — moral  distinction  between  good  and 
evil  sets  an  unavoidable  problem  to  the  monotheist:  a  God  all-powerful,  all- 
knowing,  and  all-good  presents  to  human  logic  a  challenge.  There  have  been 
many  solutions  to  this  problem  of  theodicy  in  Christianity;  Job's  seems  to  me 
still  the  basic  one: 

Then  Job  answered  the  Lord,  and  said,  I  know  that  thou  canst  do  all  things,  And 
that  no  purpose  of  thine  can  be  restrained.  Who  is  this  that  hideth  counsel  without 
knowledge?  Therefore  have  I  uttered  that  which  I  understood  not,  Things  too 
wonderful  for  me,  which  I  knew  not.  Hear,  I  beseech  thee,  and  I  will  speak;  I 
will  demand  of  thee,  and  declare  thou  unto  me.  I  had  heard  of  thee  by  the  hearing 
of  the  ear;  But  now  mine  eye  seeth  thee,  Wherefore  I  abhor  myself,  and  repent 
in  dust  and  ashes.40 

One  humanly  tempting  solution  has  remained  heretical  from  the  Mani- 
chaeans  to  John  Stuart  Mill,  who  fell  from  freethinking  into  this  heresy  in 
his  old  age:  this  is  the  dualistic  solution  of  making  God  all-good  but  not 
all-powerful.  God  in  this  view  wants  the  good  to  prevail,  but  he  cannot  elimi- 
nate evil,  Satan,  the  Dark  One,  his  opponent.  We  human  beings  ought  to 
fight  for  God,  not  for  Satan,  but  we  cannot  be  sure  of  being  on  the  winning 
side.  To  put  things  crudely,  the  religious  difficulty  of  this  solution  is  that  a 
God  whose  intentions  are  no  doubt  good  but  whose  proven  capacities  are 
not  much  greater  than  man's  is  not  a  very  useful  ally  in  the  moral  struggle, 
and  soon  becomes  quite  as  superfluous  as  the  deist's  watchmaker  god — 
indeed,  the  lower  case  letter  "g"  heralds  his  superfluity.  To  the  dualist's  argu- 
ment that  the  fighter  for  the  right  who  goes  into  the  struggle  quite  uncertain 
as  to  who  will  win  is  morally  superior  to  the  monotheist  who  knows  he, 
through  God,  cannot  possibly  lose,  the  Christian  monotheist  has  an  effective 

40  Job  42: 1-6. 


The  Beginnings  of  the  Judaeo-Christian  Tradition 

reply:  On  this  earth  the  outcome  of  any  given  struggle  is  highly  uncertain,  for 
God  does  not  rig  the  struggle  here;  He  has  ordered  the  universe  as  a  whole  in 
accordance  with  His  wisdom,  not  ours,  and  the  dualist  argument  above  is  in 
fact  an  argument  for  theological  humanism,  not  for  Christianity. 

But  these  are  high  and  ultimate  matters.  The  historian  adhering  to  the 
merely  empirical  can  assert  that  over  the  centuries  the  dualistic  solution  of 
the  problem  of  evil  has  been  rejected  as  shallow,  commonsensical,  morally 
inadequate.  A  church  that  accepted  dualism  as  an  ultimate  would  soon  cease 
to  satisfy  human  needs  for  an  ultimate.  Not  only  Roman  Catholic,  but  the 
great  majority  of  Protestant  Christianity,  has  refused  to  set  up  the  patent, 
unavoidable  Christian  tension  between  this  world  and  another,  between  Na- 
ture and  God,  as  a  dualistic  antithesis,  a  polarity  of  equals.  Christian  morality 
accepts  competition,  conflict,  the  agon,  even  a  touch  of  pride,  but  only  in 
tension  with  loving  kindness,  altruism,  co-operation.  In  simplest  terms,  Chris- 
tianity since  Augustine  certainly,  accepts  war  on  this  earth  as  necessary  if  it 
is  just — if  it  furthers  Christian  purpose;  but  its  heaven,  its  ideal,  its  ultimate 
moral  tone,  is  peace.41 

Christianity  so  sets  the  way  Westerners,  even  Westerners  who  would  hate  to 
think  of  themselves  as  Christians,  thi'nV  and  feel  about  morals  that  it  is  worth 
our  while  here,  at  the  risk  of  some  repetitiousness,  to  put  the  broad  lines  of 
that  way  and  its  difficulties  as  succinctly  as  possible. 

The  individual,  endowed  with  an  immortal  soul  of  priceless  value,  is  a 
free  moral  agent.  Once  he  is  mature,  he  knows,  by  the  grace  of  God  and 
through  the  teachings  of  the  church,  right  from  wrong.  If  he  chooses  to  do 
wrong,  the  conscience  God  has  made  part  of,  or  a  function  of,  his  soul  tells 
him  he  is  guilty.  He  can  perhaps  plead  physical  duress,  and,  to  a  limited 
extent,  ignorance,  but  he  cannot  plead  total  irresponsibility,  cannot  claim  that 
he  acted  under  cosmic  necessity.  He  is,  through  his  conscience,  aware  of  the 
"civil  war  within  the  breast,"  aware  within  himself  of  something  that  drives 
him  to  sin,  and  of  something  within  himself  that  urges  him  to  virtue.  Put  in 
another  way,  he  is  aware  of  the  contrast  between  his  soul  and  his  body,  and 

41  Denis  de  Rougemont  in  his  Man's  Western  Quest  brings  out  well  this  Christian  con- 
trast of  this  world  and  another,  a  contrast  that  never — while  orthodox  or  even  mildly 
heterodox — approaches  the  Eastern  (Asian)  denigration  and  denial  of  this  world  of  the 
senses,  and  of  the  agon.  Americans,  who  are  put  off  by  epigrammatic  cleverness,  at  least 
when  it  is  displayed  on  the  side  of  the  angels,  should  realize  that  M.  de  Rougemont,  who 
writes  with  epigrammatic  cleverness,  is  deeply  serious  as  well  as  obviously  serieux. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

aware  that  the  soul  ought  to  be  the  master  of  the  body.  This  attitude  I  should 
like  to  put  as  the  "minimal  Western  puritanism,"  an  attitude  never  totally 
absent  in  the  Christian  moral  outlook. 

Now  this  minimal  puritanism  is  not  menaced — indeed,  is  greatly  rein- 
forced— by  deterministic  theological  and  metaphysical  ideas  that  might  seem 
at  first  sight  to  destroy  the  free  moral  agency  of  the  individual.  There  can 
hardly  be  in  matters  of  Western  morals  a  safer  induction  from  experience 
than  the  above  statement.  The  Christian  who  believes  that  everything  he  does 
is  foreordained  by  an  omnipotent  and  omniscient  God  never  goes  on  to  say: 
Since  God  is  responsible  for  all  my  thoughts  and  desires,  he  has  clearly  put 
into  my  mind  my  present  desire  to  fornicate;  I  shall  therefore  fornicate,  since 
God  so  clearly  wants  me  to.42  We  shall  have  to  return  to  this  matter  with 
those  two  great  modern  variants  of  the  doctrine  of  determinism,  Calvinism 
and  Marxism. 

This  minimal  Christian  puritanism,  this  basic  but  not  radical  dualism,  has 
had  to  struggle  with  determined  foes  in  the  long  course  of  Christian  history. 
At  the  most  theoretical,  there  have  been  many  kinds  of  theological  and  meta- 
physical doctrines  that  deny,  gloss  over,  or  exaggerate  the  dualism  of  soul 
and  body,  Higher  and  Lower,  such  as  pantheism  on  one  hand  and  Manichae- 
anism  on  the  other.  Most  of  these  intellectual  deviants  are  present  in  one  form 
or  another  in  those  great  earliest  centuries  of  Christian  heresies. 

At  a  much  less  intellectually  respectable  level,  Christianity  has  been  men- 
aced in  this  basic  moral  position  by  the  persistence  of  many  forms  of  early 
("primitive")  cosmic  beliefs  centered  on  the  concept  of  wrongdoing  as  a  kind 
of  plague,  a  visitation  from  gods  not  really  interested  in  human  beings,  a 
possession  by  demons,  a  consequence  of  the  individual's  breaking,  through 
accident  or  bad  luck,  absolute  rules  made  by  powerful  nonhuman  forces  "out 
there,"  controllable,  if  at  all,  only  by  magic  and  conformity.  This  is  the 
moral  attitude  of  Piaget's  little  children,  and  it  clearly  has  no  place  for  our 
concepts  of  individual  moral  responsibility.  It  is  not  as  near  extinction  in  the 
modern  West  as  we  once  liked  to  think.  It  survives  in  many  ways,  from  simple 
superstitions  like  newspaper  astrology  to  the  concept  of  guilt  by  association 
— the  latter  not  without  roots  in  common  sense,  but,  as  we  all  know  now, 
spreading  into  much  deeper  and  less  pleasant  soils. 

42  My  "never"  above  was  no  doubt  an  exaggeration.  The  enemies  at  least  of  the  radical 
sect  known  as  the  Antinomians  in  the  sixteenth  century  accused  them  of  justifying  all 
sorts  of  excesses  by  some  such  reasoning  as  the  above.  Still,  the  generalization  holds 
up:  somehow  deterministic  doctrines  do  not  explain,  let  alone  justify,  wickedness  in 
individual  action.  Sm  is  a  mystery. 


The  Beginnings  of  the  Judaeo-Christian  Tradition 

In  modern  times,  however,  the  chief  threat  to  minimal  Christian  puritan- 
ism  has  been  a  heresy  as  profound  as  any  Christianity  has  faced,  the  doctrines 
that  gave  direction  in  the  eighteenth-century  Enlightenment  to  the  belief  in 
the  natural  goodness  and/or  reasonableness  of  man,  and  its  corollary,  the 
belief  that  evil  is  a  product  of  environment — partly  of  natural  or  geographic 
environment,  but  mostly  of  human  or  socio-economic  environment.  As  we 
shall  see,  in  the  actual  struggles  of  ideas  this  doctrine  of  the  environmental 
origin  of  evil  does  not  by  any  means  banish  the  concept  of  wicked  and 
virtuous,  of  morally  responsible  individuals.  To  the  Marxist,  the  capitalist  is 
a  villain,  responsible  for  the  evil  he  does,  even  though  he  would  seem  to  be, 
like  the  rest  of  us,  the  innocent  product  of  the  means  of  production.  Indeed, 
Marxism  is  a  "primitive"  determinism  which  has  borrowed  much  of  Christian 
ethics.  To  all  this  we  shall  have  to  return. 


Christianity  will  be  a  constant  theme  for  the  rest  of  our  study.  To  the  outsider 
certainly  Christianity  on  this  earth  has  changed,  developed,  had  a  history. 
Here  again  the  theme  we  have  just  discussed  is  apposite;  there  is  in  Chris* 
tianity  a  tension,  a  contrast,  which  to  some  has  appeared  a  contradiction, 
Christianity,  it  is  maintained,  is  a  revealed  religion;  it  is  true;  truth  does  not 
change;  Christianity  was  in  the  beginning  what  it  is  today.  Therefore,  obvi- 
ously, Christianity  has  not  changed  and  the  changes  historians  record  are 
either  not  real  changes  or  they  are  not  Christian  changes  (that  is,  they  are 
temporary  and  in  this  world  successful  heresies) .  The  position  briefly  outlined 
above  is  known  to  Americans  as  Fundamentalism,  and  though  with  elaborate 
exegesis  on  the  adjectives  "real"  and  "Christian"  it  could  be  made  acceptable 
to  a  wide  range  of  Christians,  in  its  simple  form  it  is  by  no  means  representa- 
tive of  Christian  attitudes  toward  this  world  and  the  history  which  is  here 
made — though  not  in  heaven,  which  is  well  beyond  history. 

Here  on  this  earth  the  church  has  a  history;  it  has  failures  and  successes. 
It  grows,  develops,  for  it  is  alive  with  human  life.  Cardinal  Newman  put  the 
matter  provocatively  in  his  Development  of  Christian  Doctrine,  written,  it  is 
true,  just  before  Darwin,  but  fully  abreast  of  nineteenth-century  acceptance 
of  ideas  of  growth  and  evolution.  Just  because  the  church  is  in  part  human, 
it  must  change:  " — in  a  higher  world  it  is  otherwise,  but  here  below  to  live 
is  to  change,  and  to  be  perfect  is  to  have  changed  often."43 
43  J.  H.  Newman,  Essay  on  the  Development  of  Christian  Doctrine  (1845),  p.  40. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

These  early  centuries  in  which  Christianity  was  fighting — I  use  the  word 
advisedly — its  way  to  success  are  not  quite  the  years  from  which  one  would 
try  to  draw  the  Christian  moral  ideal,  embodied  or  not.  It  is  profoundly  true 
that  Jesus  Christ  is  the  Christian  moral  ideal,  but  not  in  the  sense  I  am  using 
that  phrase  in  this  study.  Christ  is,  save  to  the  extreme  Unitarian  or  "hu- 
manist," God,  and  an  imitatio  Christi  must  have  elements  not  found  in  simple 
moral  emulation,  which  is  always  to  a  degree  prudential.  What  Christ  did 
during  his  ministry  on  earth  is  of  major  importance  in  the  moral  content  of 
Christianity,  above  all,  to  re-emphasize  what  I  have  noted  above,  because  in 
the  balance  that  ministry  rejects  the  Homeric  agon  and  its  successor  for  the 
beatitudes  and  for  the  greatest  of  these,  love.  But  to  draw  the  outlines  of  what 
Christianity  brought  in  place  of  the  Homeric  hero,  the  Periclean  beautiful- 
and-good,  the  Stoic  servant  of  duty,  we  shall  do  better  to  wait  until  in  the 
next  chapter  the  saint  and  the  knight  of  the  Middle  Ages  appear.  Both  owe 
much — in  a  sense,  everything — to  the  first  Christian  centuries,  but  they  are 
not,  historically,  contemporaries  of  the  martyrs  and  the  Fathers. 

We  must,  however,  come  back  briefly  in  conclusion  to  two  problems  of 
direct  historical  pertinence  here.  On  the  old  question  of  the  part  played  by 
Christianity  in  the  fall  of  the  Roman  Empire  we  can  be  quite  brief.  Unless 
the  naive  anti-intellectualism  which  says  that  men's  beliefs  in  the  big  and 
dignified  matters  of  religion  and  ethics  have  no  relation  whatever  to  their 
actions,  then  one  has  to  conclude  that  a  set  of  beliefs  which,  as  we  have  seen, 
is  neatly  pointed  up  by  Tertullian's  "nothing  more  alien  to  us  than  concern 
with  the  public  thing"  must  have  been  one  of  the  variables  the  historian  will 
list  and  roughly  measure  as  elements  in  the  collapse  of  the  Greco-Roman 
One  World.  But  there  are  many,  many  such  variables,  among  which  Chris- 
tianity is,  I  think,  no  more  than  of  middling  importance.  I  do  not  think  that 
even  if  the  soldierly  Mithraism  so  strong  in  the  armies  had  also  won  over  the 
civilian  population  of  the  Empire  the  outcome  would  have  been  very  different. 
Gibbon's  famous  "triumph  of  barbarism  and  religion"  remains  what  it  has 
always  been:  good  Gibbon,  but  poor  sociology,  poor  history. 

The  historian  is  always  confronted  with  a  post-mortem,  and  must  always 
wonder  whether  anything  could  have  saved  the  patient.  I  think  it  clear  that 
what  I  have  a  bit  loosely  called  the  "civic  virtues" — disciplined  obedience  to 
law  and  authority,  steady  ways  of  ritual  communion  with  one's  fellows  of  the 
common  weal,  self-identification  of  the  individual  with  the  society,  expecta- 
tion of  the  need  for  self-immolation  in  war,  and,  to  use  a  modern  instance  not 
misleading,  a  degree  of  willingness  to  put  "guns  before  butter" — these  civic 


The  Beginnings  of  the  Judaea-Christian  Tradition 

virtues  simply  did  not  exist  among  the  masses  of  the  Roman  Empire.  Their 
existence,  often  as  strong  sentiments,  among  the  few  who  held  the  armies  and 
the  civil  services  together  was  clearly  not  enough.  Now  Christianity  was  later 
to  give  abundant  proof  that  it  is  wholly  congruous  with  a  high  degree  of  the 
civic  and  military  virtues;  it  is  sufficient  to  mention  the  Teutonic  Knights,  the 
Cromwellian  New  Model  Army,  the  help  Christianity  has  given — to  the  regret 
of  many  Christians — to  the  modern  nation-state  in  war. 

But — and  it  is  a  big  but — there  is  a  whole  side  of  Christianity  that  cannot 
accept  the  civic  and  military  virtues,  as  they  get  focused  in  this  world,  as 
virtues  at  all.  Some  Christians  at  all  times  are  fighting  pacifists,  rebels  against 
the  political  in-group,  condemners  of  the  great,  the  high,  the  mighty;  some 
Christians  really  do  not  believe  in  rendering  anything  at  all  to  Caesar,  for 
they  do  not  think  there  should  be  Caesars.  We  are  here  at  a  point  far  more 
important  than  the  old  chestnut  about  the  role  of  Christianity  in  the  downfall 
of  the  Roman  Empire,  a  point  to  which  we  shall  have  to  recur.  Deepest  of  all 
the  problems  and  contradictions  of  historical  Christianity  is  this  basic,  this 
fundamental,  this  recurring — if  in  this  extreme  form  heretical — Christian 
motif:  the  world  is  bad,  success  in  it  is  failure,  satisfaction  with  any  part  of  it 
is  the  mark  of  the  false,  the  spurious  Christian.  Church  organization  has 
mined  the  Christianity  of  Jesus  Christ,  theology  has  f alsified  the  gospel  faith, 
spontaneous  religious  emotional  life  has  been  strait-jacketed  by  dogma,  the 
Letter  again  and  again  has  killed — but  the  Spirit  will  not  quiet  down.  For  ye 
have  the  Kierkegaards  always  with  you.44 

A  Kierkegaard  in  a  nineteenth-century  Lutheran  Church  which  was  about 
to  blossom  in  the  great  German  Empire  had  but  little  effect,  was  really  no 
more  than  a  reminder  that  the  martyr  is  indeed  a  witness.  But  in  the  early 
years  of  Christianity  the  martyrs  were  rather  more  than  forerunners  of  Exis- 
tentialism. The  lift  of  the  otherworldly  ideal  was  strong,  so  strong  that  though 
we  cannot  "explain"  the  fall  of  the  Roman  Empire  in  Gibbon's  terms,  we  can 
and  must  note  that  Christianity  contains  in  it  a  menace  to  all  worldly  empires. 
Tamed,  it  is  a  marvelous  discipline,  a  nurse  of  the  civic  virtues.  But  it  is  hard 
to  tame,  hard  to  keep  tamed.  We  must  return  again  and  again  to  this  theme, 

44  Many  a  great  work  has  been  built  on  one  form  or  another  of  this  Christian  contrast 
or  tension,  for  instance,  Harnack's  great  history  of  dogma.  The  reader  will  find  in 
Philip  RiefFs  excellent  introduction  to  a  modern  reprinting  of  Harnack's  own  one- 
volume  summary  of  his  life  work,  a  very  succinct  statement  of  this  conflict  between 
what  I  may  perhaps  too  lightly  call  comfortable  and  uncomfortable  Christianity  in 
history.  Adolf  Harnack,  Outlines  of  the  History  of  Dogma,  intr.  by  Philip  Rieff,  Boston, 
Beacon,  1957. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

for  the  ethical  implications  of  Christianity  tamed  are  quite  different  from  the 
ethical  implications  of  Christianity  wild. 

The  other  favorite  freethinker's  denigration,  that  the  noble  ethical  prin- 
ciples of  Christianity  had  no  effect  whatever  on  human  conduct  in  these  first 
four  centuries  of  the  Christian  era,  that  men  continued  to  murder,  gamble, 
whore,  and  generally  conduct  themselves  in  ways  the  freethinkers,  the 
Enlightened,  in  the  modern  West  disapprove,  deserves  short  shrift.  If  we  must 
reject  the  naive  anti-intellectualist  assertion  that  ethics  have  no  effect  on 
conduct,  we  must  reject — perhaps  a  little  more  forcefully  and  with  a  little 
greater  effort,  for  we  are  more  conditioned  to  it — one  sort  of  idealist's  asser- 
tion that  ethics  ought  to  be  synonymous  with  conduct,  and  would  be,  if  only 
.  .  .  well,  usually  because  there  are  a  few,  just  a  few,  villainous  men,  villain- 
ous beliefs,  villainous  traditions,  or  villainous  institutions  about.  I  shall  come 
again  to  this  difficult  relation,  difficult  in  reality  as  it  is  difficult  in  analysis, 
between  ethics  and  conduct.  Here  it  should  be  sufficient  to  note  that  Victo- 
rians like  the  freethinker  Robertson  gravely  oversimplified  the  relation.  In 
very  brief  statement:  Christian  ethics  set  very  high  standards,  not  for  a  priv- 
ileged few,  such  as  the  Aristotelian  ethics  very  specifically  did,  but  for  the 
many,  for  everyone.  We  should  not  be  surprised  that  the  many  then  and  now 
failed  to  live  up  to  these  standards.  We  should  not  be  surprised  that  Chris- 
tianity failed  to  suppress  immediately  the  cruelty  of  the  arena,  the  obscenity 
of  the  stage,  the  fearful  agon  of  imperial  politics.  Surely  we  should  be  sur- 
prised only  if  the  whole  Roman  world  had  suddenly  started  to  live  up  in 
practice  to  the  Christian  ethic. 

The  historian,  at  any  rate  the  historian  with  sociological  leanings,  may 
perhaps  be  permitted  to  ask  whether  a  religion  that  does  set  high,  in  a  sense 
humanly  unnatural,  ethical  standards  achieves  as  good  a  level  of  conduct  as 
might  a  religion  less  exacting  in  ethics.  This,  and  the  closely  related  question 
of  the  reality  of  moral  "progress"  or  "evolution,"  we  must  ultimately  come 
back  to,  though  here  we  may  note  that  neither  history  nor  sociology  as  social 
or  behavioral  sciences  are  yet  old  enough,  well-enough  developed,  to  give  us 
good  answers.  Certainly  they  will  not  give  us  neat  answers  of  the  sort  Robert- 
son gave,  for  he  and  his  fellows  actually  set  their  standards  quite  as  high  as 
Christianity  ever  did — and  proposed  to  realize  them  with  no  help  from  God, 
nor  even  from  that  rather  pale  but  not  wholly  ineffective  substitute  for  God, 
the  Greek  sense  of  the  dangers  of  hubris,  with  help  only  from  a  highly  intel- 
lectualized  "conscience." 

Though  Christianity  sets  very  high  ethical  standards — go  over  once  more 


The  Beginnings  of  the  Judaeo-Christian  Tradition 

the  Ten  Commandments  and  the  Sermon  on  the  Mount — those  Christians 
who  have  the  cure  of  souls  have  usually  tempered  the  wind  to  the  shorn  lamb. 
At  all  times  some  Christians,  and  at  some  times  a  great  many.,  are  spurred — 
we  really  do  not  know  why,  how,  under  what  conditions — to  attempt  to 
realize  here  on  earth  these  lofty  standards.  But  for  the  most  part,  the  church 
of  Christ,  and,  after  the  separation  of  East  and  West,  the  churches,  have  acted 
in  accordance  with  the  Christian  estimate  of  human  nature,  which  is  not  that 
men  are  naturally  good  and/or  reasonable,  but  that  they  are  naturally  sinful, 
though  through  God's  grace  they  may  even  here  on  earth  conduct  themselves 
rather  better  than  they  would  by  nature.  Oddly  enough,  this  Christian  esti- 
mate of  human  nature  was  by  no  means  inadequately  stated  by  Alexander 
Pope,  who  did  much  to  help  the  rationalist  Enlightenment  on  its  way  to  its 
heretical  belief  that  men  are  by  nature  good. 

Plac'd  on  this  isthmus  of  a  middle  state, 
A  being  darkly  wise  and  rudely  great: 
With  too  much  knowledge  for  the  Sceptic  side, 
With  too  much  weakness  for  the  Stoic's  pride, 
He  hangs  between;  in  doubt  to  act  or  rest, 
In  doubt  to  deem  himself  a  God,  or  Beast; 
In  doubt  his  Mind  or  Body  to  prefer, 
Born  but  to  die,  and  reas'ning  but  to  err; 
Alike  in  ignorance,  his  reason  such, 
Whether  he  thirds  too  little  or  too  much: 
Chaos  of  Thought  and  Passion,  all  confus'd, 
Still  by  himself  abus'd,  or  disabus'd.45 

Such  an  estimate  ought,  in  fact,  to  be  acceptable  even  to  the  anti-Chris- 
tians and  the  varieties  of  the  Enlightened  who  hold  that  man  is  simply  an 
animal  who  has  come  out  on  top  after  a  long  course  of  organic  evolution.  This 
animal  is  clearly  not — or  at  any  rate  not  yet — a  social  animal  in  the  sense 
that  the  bees  and  the  ants  are  social  animals.  If  we  are  as  close  to  the  higher 
mammals  as  the  materialist  believes  we  are,  then  Christianity,  seen  simply  in 
naturalistic-historical  perspective,  is  a  magnificent  achievement,  and  a  highly 
suitable  faith  for  Homo  sapiens — far  better  than  an  Oriental  faith  like  Bud- 
dhism, which  will  not  in  the  end  tolerate  or  accept  the  animal  at  all,  far  better 
than  the  modern  Western  secular  faiths  like  Marxism  and  anti-Christian 
democratic  nationalism,  or  cosmopolitanism,  which  hold  that  animal  to  be 
already  by  nature  tame,  domesticated,  a  freethinking  mammalian  bee — a 
paradox,  in  short,  far  more  incredible  than  the  Christian  one. 

45  Alexander  Pope,  An  Epistle  on  Man,  Epistle  n,  3-14. 


The  Middle  Ages 

THE  MIDDLE  AGES  began,  after  the  collapse  of  the  Roman  Empire  in  the 
West,  with  several  centuries  of  violence  and  primitive  political  and  economic 
life,  centuries  that  used  to  be  called  the  Dark  Ages.  They  still  look  dark  on 
the  record,  though  we  note  with  less  surprise  than  did  our  Victorian  prede- 
cessors that  to  its  own  contemporaries  the  record  of  these  Dark  Ages  seemed 
to  reflect  the  obvious  fact  that  God,  the  orthodox  God  of  the  Trinity,  was  in 
His  heaven  and  all  was  as  right  on  His  earth  as  He  had  intended.  Gregory  of 
Tours,  whose  work  is  as  much  a  locus  classicus  here  as  that  of  Tacitus  for  the 
early  Roman  Empire,  is  certain  that  God  was  pleased  with  the  Prankish 
King  Clovis;  Gregory  has,  when  he  makes  this  remark,  just  finished  recount- 
ing a  series  of  murders  and  betrayals  by  which  Clovis  did  the  work  of  the 

Once  again,  the  facts  are  substantially  clear,  and  we  need  not  spend  much 
time  on  them.  Gregory's  ample  record  of  the  struggle  for  power  in  Mero- 
vingian Gaul — actually,  already  France — in  the  fifth  and  sixth  centuries  is 
surely  no  unfair  sampling;  but  almost  any  of  the  other  chronicles  of  the  time, 
such  as  that  in  which  the  British  monk  Gildas  recounts  the  horrid  deeds  of 
the  pagan  Anglo-Saxons,  or  lives  of  missionary  saints  like  Boniface  which 
reflect  the  conditions  under  which  these  devoted  men  labored,  are  full  of  deeds 
— murders,  poisonings,  patricides,  matricides,  adulteries,  incests,  gluttony, 
drunkenness — at  least  as  bad  as  any  in  Western  history.2  It  is  true  that  we  are 

1  Gregory  of  Tours,  The  History  of  the  Franks,  II,  29  (40). 

2  The  reader  should  go  direct  to  Gregory;  the  rivalry  of  those  two  remarkable  women 


The  Middle  Ages 

once  more  in  the  presence  of  the  familiar  and  unavoidable  fact  that  the  wicked 
deeds  are  interesting,  dramatic,  and  get  recorded;  and  we  have  also  for  this 
period  an  added  factor  that  makes  for  bias.  All  our  records  are  in  fact 
monkish  or  priestly  chronicles,  written  by  firm,  excited,  uncritical  believers 
in  an  order  of  the  universe  that  is  not  at  all  our  world  of  science,  and  social 
science.  Do  not  ask  semantic  concern  from  Gregory  and  his  fellows;  do  not 
even  expect  them  to  worry  over  the  distinction  between  the  normal  and  the 
abnormal  in  human  nature. 

Yet  there  is  no  need  to  question  the  facts  established  above.  The  conduct 
of  ruling  classes  in  the  West  in  these  centuries  is  bad  enough  to  need  explain- 
ing. That  explanation  can  hardly  for  us  lie  in  the  nice  rationalism  of  recent 
generations.  Lecky  throws  light  on  the  nineteenth,  but  not  on  the  sixth,  cen- 
tury when  he  writes : 

It  would  be  easy  to  cite  other,  though  perhaps  not  quite  such  striking,  instances  of 
the  degree  in  which  the  moral  judgements  of  this  unhappy  age  were  distorted 
by  superstition.  Questions  of  orthodoxy,  or  questions  of  fasting,  appeared  to  the 
popular  mind  immeasurably  more  important  than  what  we  should  now  call  the 
fundamental  principles  of  right  and  wrong.3 

Lecky  probably  did  actually  believe  that  questions  of  orthodoxy  were  not 
fundamental  questions  of  right  and  wrong.  The  old  and  dangerous  figure  of 
speech  does  better  for  us:  these  centuries  are  centuries  of  youth,  immaturity, 
crudeness,  barbarism.  However  tricky  this  figure  may  be — the  protagonists, 
in  spite  of  the  suddenness  and  frequence  of  death  by  violence,  in  spite  of 
lamentable  lack  of  hygienic  measures,  were  not  in  years  significantly  younger 
than  in  other  societies — it  seems  unavoidable.  These  grown-up  men  and 
women  do  behave  with  a  child's  bright  violence,  a  child's  lack  of  adult  sense 
of  proportion,  or  merely  sense  of  probable  consequences,  a  child's  cruelty 
and  love  of  being  loved.  And,  like  children,  they  are  romantics,  always  to  be 
blest  or  damned.  Like  children,  they  know  regrets,  but  not  conscience. 

The  Victorians,  who  did  not  worry  much  about  using  figures  of  speech, 
knew  that  these  Germanic  barbarians  of  the  West  in  the  Dark  Ages  were 
children,  that  theirs  was  a  "young"  society.  But  since  most  Victorian  writers 
were  victims  of  Wordsworth's  ideas  about  childish  innocence  and  virtue,  and 
since  children  like  Clovis  and  Fredegonde  behaved  wickedly  indeed,  they 

Fr6degonde  and  Brunehaut,  as  recorded  in  Books  YE  and  Vffi,  will  leave  him  in  no 
doubt  as  to  their  wicked  conduct.  The  morally  outraged  Lecky,  History  of  European 
Morals,  Vol.  n,  pp.  235  ff.,  summarizes  in  detail. 
3  History  of  European  Morals,  Vol.  II,  pp.  242-243. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

faced  a  contradiction.  Charles  Kingsley,  who,  incredibly,  was  elected  Regius 
Professor  of  History  at  Cambridge,  wrestled  with  the  problem  in  his  inaugural 
lectures  on  the  barbarian  invasions.  He  felt  as  he  was  bound  to,  that  the 
Germans  were  blond  and  good,  the  Romans  dark  and  bad.  Of  course,  the 
Romans  corrupted  the  Germans,  who  were  too  inexperienced  to  withstand 
temptations  of  the  "troll  garden"  (the  Empire!).  Kingsley  actually  calls  the 
Germans  children,  "often  very  naughty  children,"  but,  of  course,  at  bottom 
virtuous  and  good  muscular  Christians.4 

There  remains  for  us  the  puzzle  of  Gregory's  moral  attitudes,  a  puzzle 
we  shall  not  solve,  for  if  no  man  can  know  another  among  his  contempo- 
raries, the  best  of  historical  imaginations  will  not  take  him  back  to  a  man  as 
remote  from  us  as  was  Gregory.  Yet  clearly  Gregory,  of  an  old  and  cultured 
Gallo-Roman  aristocratic  family,  was  no  barbarian.  I  do  not  think  he  was 
consciously  making  what  we  call  propaganda.  When  he  wrote  that  Clovis  was 
doing  the  Lord's  work,  he  was  not  urging  an  Orwellian  "doublethink,"  nor 
even  quite  the  Nice  Lie  by  which  Plato  sought  to  reconcile  the  inferior  men  of 
brass  to  the  rule  of  the  golden  philosopher-kings.5  He  meant,  if  I  may  be 
anachronistic,  that  Clovis,  the  heathen  converted,  not  to  the  devilish  heresy 
of  Arianism,  but  to  God's  own  orthodoxy,  was  doing  God's  work  in  his,  and 
His,  world — but  not  in  the  world  of  Mr.  Gladstone  and  the  Society  for  the 
Prevention  of  Cruelty  to  Animals.  Gregory  did  not,  could  not,  have  expected 
his  Franks  to  conduct  themselves  as  private  persons  other  than  as  they  did; 
he  did  not  condone  the  wickedness  of  high  politics,  any  more  than  we  condone 
the  weather.  He  accepted  but  did  not  necessarily  like  or  approve  evil,  as  we 
accept  the  weather.  He  was  still  an  early  Christian,  for  whom  this  dark  world 
is  but  an  entrance  to  another,  much  better,  or  much  worse;  and  the  neces- 
sary way  to  the  better  world,  the  way  people  ought  to  go,  is  through  Christian 
orthodoxy.  Gregory  did  not  say  that  murder,  betrayal,  adultery  are  good; 
insofar  as  a  priest  he  exercised  cure  of  souls,  he  most  certainly  held  such  con- 
duct up  as  sin.  What  he  did  say  was  that  the  victory  of  the  Roman  Catholic 
Church  here  on  earth  is  the  great  good.6 

The  medieval  man  was  bound  to  feel  and  classify  as  normal  in  fact  a  kind 

4  See  my  English  Political  Thought  in  the  Nineteenth  Century,  London,  Benn,  1933, 
p.  128. 

5  The  Republic  of  Plato,  trans,  by  A.  D.  Lindsay,  London,  Dent,  1948,  pp.  99-103. 

6 1  am  aware  that  this  argument  is  bound  to  seem  casuistical  to  most  twentieth-century 
Americans  of  good  will;  but  it  seems  casuistical  basically  because,  as  heirs  of  the  En- 
lightenment, we  expect  so  much  better  conduct  from  everybody — and  especially  from 
our  rulers. 


The  Middle  Ages 

of  melodramatic  violence  that  we,  in  spite  of  the  tabloids,  in  spite  of  our 
own  prophets  of  doom,  in  spite  of  the  H-bomb,  are  at  heart  convinced  is 
abnormal,  a  preventable,  curable,  moral  delinquency.  Huizinga  has  put  it 
well,  not  only  for  these  early  years,  but  for  the  whole  of  the  Middle  Ages, 
that  most  Faustian  time: 

So  violent  and  motley  was  life,  that  it  bore  the  mixed  smell  of  blood  and  of  roses. 
The  men  of  that  time  always  oscillate  between  the  fear  of  hell  and  the  most  naive 
joy,  between  cruelty  and  tenderness,  between  harsh  asceticism  and  insane  attach- 
ment to  the  delights  of  this  world,  between  hatred  and  goodness,  always  running 
to  extremes.7 

Even  if  you  find  the  explanation  of  figurative  youthfulness  in  a  society 
inadequate,  the  facts  are  there.  Not  the  least  conspicuous  of  the  extremes  of 
this  society  is  the  width  of  the  gap  between  the  ideal  and  the  real,  between 
profession  and  performance,  the  gap  everyone  notes  in  Gregory's  lying  mur- 
derer Clovis,  the  favorite  of  the  God  of  Moses  and  Isaiah,  the  God  who  had 
sent  his  only  begotten  Son  to  redeem  us  all. 

Men  in  the  Dark  Ages,  and  to  a  degree  in  the  Middle  Ages  and  the 
Renaissance,  too,  faced  a  life  of  insecurity  everywhere — an  economic  order 
still  at  the  mercy  of  drought,  flood,  inadequate  transportation,  inadequate 
finance,  a  political  order  that  could  not  administer  effectively  any  large  ter- 
ritory— with  the  economic  consequence  that  markets,  too,  were  small  and 
"inefficient" — a  moral  order  that  in  the  face  of  violence  and  insecurity  did 
not,  could  not,  expect  men  to  be  sober,  steady,  cautious,  restrained,  to  have, 
in  short,  what  I  have  called  for  the  Romans  at  their  best  the  "civic  virtues." 
As  the  Western  world  grew  into  modernity,  political  order  and  some  of  the 
civic  virtues  followed;  but  the  haunting  fear  of  both  this  world  and  the  next 
never  quite  left  medieval  men,  and  it  gave  their  lives  a  tone  of  desperation — 
not  for  the  most  part  Thoreauvian  quiet  desperation — which  later  historians 
in  their  own  security  have  been  able  to  find  romantic,  heroic,  fascinating  in 
vicarious  experience. 

Some  mark  of  this  excess  of  excessiveness,  then,  remains  throughout  the 
Middle  Ages;  but  the  naivete  of  these  early  years  is  lost.  It  is  a  grave  mistake 
to  regard  the  Middle  Ages  as  a  perpetual  childhood.  Most  of  what  the  later 
medieval  centuries  were  to  fashion  into  the  complex  and  subtle  moral  ideals 
of  the  saint  and  the  knight  have  their  immediate  origins  in  this  crudely  violent 
society  of  the  Dark  Ages.  At  the  very  least,  these  centuries  are  the  matrix 
out  of  which  came  the  great  heroes,  the  great  achievements,  of  the  High 
7  J.  Huizinga,  The  Waning  of  the  Middle  Ages,  p.  18. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

Middle  Ages.  They  are  to  the  High  Middle  Ages  what  the  days  of  Moses  were 
to  the  Jews,  the  days  of  Achilles  to  the  Greeks.  But  not  even  the  best  known 
and  most  important  of  all  these  sources,  the  epic  poem  of  the  Chanson  de 
Roland,  took  on  its  transmitted  form  this  early.  For  us,  certainly,  what  the 
poets  later  made  of  Charlemagne  is  more  important  than  what  contemporaries 
like  his  biographer  Einhard  made  of  him.  What  the  twelfth  and  the  thirteenth 
centuries  were  to  make  into  the  academic  culture  of  the  Middle  Ages  is  more 
important  than  the  rather  pathetic  "Carolingian  Renaissance"  in  which  the 
clerics  staged  the  first  major  rally  of  learning  since  the  breakdown  of  the  fifth 
century.  We  may  then  proceed  directly  to  the  developed  ideals  of  the  knight 
and  the  saint. 


At  the  outset  we  run  into  a  difficulty  that  can  be  no  more  than  acknowledged. 
The  Middle  Ages  regarded  both  the  knight  and  the  saint  as  complementary 
facets  of  a  single  ideal,  the  Christian;  both  were  needed  servants  of  God  and  of 
His  order  on  earth.  Since  the  spirit  is  in  Christian  formal  belief  loftier  than 
the  noblest  flesh,  the  saint,  if  there  must  be  a  ranking,  comes  before  the  knight. 
The  first  estate  of  the  medieval  assemblies  was  not  the  nobility,  but  the  clergy. 
Now  such,  if  we  will  be  moderately  honest,  is  by  no  means  our  ranking  today. 
We  not  only  put  the  warrior,  the  politician,  the  judge,  the  captain  of  industry, 
the  magician  of  science  well  ahead  of  the  man  of  God,  but  we  suspect  that  the 
Middle  Ages  did  not  really  put  the  spiritual  first,  did  not  really  rank  the  priest 
ahead  of  the  noble.  Yet  this  suspicion  of  ours  is  unjust,  and  leads  us  astray. 
We  shall  not  get  far  inside  the  men  of  the  Middle  Ages  unless  we  recognize 
that  they  "believed  in"  their  ideal  representation  of  the  universe  in  a  way  we 
can  hardly  believe  in  ours,  unless  we  are  better  Christians  or  more  naive 
materialists  than  most  of  us  are.  The  medieval  man  knew  that  spirit  primes 
matter;  he  did  not,  of  course,  expect  the  spiritual  as  a  rule  to  be  crowned  with 
material  success  here  on  earth — that  would  indeed  have  been  a  transvaluation 
of  values  in  his  eyes.  But  he  was  no  hypocrite;  he  knew  that  in  the  next  world 
God  would  surely  set  matters  right. 

To  the  knight,  then,  is,  in  theory,  assigned  the  task  of  keeping  this  earthly 
social  frame  we  must  inhabit  in  good  order.  He  is  soldier,  landlord,  governor, 
fitting  neatly  into  a  hierarchy  that  reaches  its  top  in  kings  and  in  the  emperor, 
Western  successors  of  the  Caesars.  And  in  fact  the  knight  is  the  man  who  gets 
things  done  at  the  top,  the  member  of  what  is  until  fairly  late  in  the  Middle 


The  Middle  Ages 

Ages  a  comparatively  homogeneous  ruling  class.  The  priest,  who  alone  at  first 
could  read,  was  needed  in  lay  affairs  from  the  start,  for  he  alone  could  keep 
records;  and  the  beginnings  of  the  lawyer,  the  civil  administrator,  the  entre- 
preneurial merchant,  even  of  the  efficient  professional  physician,  go  farther 
back  than  we  used  to  think.  Still,  it  is  substantially  true  that  the  feudal  nobility 
are  the  representative  figures  of  the  lay  vita  activa  right  up  to  that  seedbed 
of  our  times,  the  fourteenth  century.8 

Now  the  knight  was  first  of  all  a  fighter.  He  was  trained  from  childhood  in 
the  skills,  in  those  days  before  gunpowder  most  exacting  athletic  skills,  neces- 
sary to  the  fighter  on  horseback.  It  was,  however,  a  training  in  one  important 
respect  excessively  individuaEstic,  even  anarchic.  The  medieval  knight  was 
by  no  means  wholly  undisciplined;  the  physical  rigors  he  had  to  live  through 
and  the  technical  skills  he  had  to  acquire  involved  hard  practice  and  much 
self-denial.  Moreover,  the  final  form  of  Christian  culture  to  which  he  was 
subjected,  itself  the  forerunner  of  the  duty-filled  education  of  the  Western 
resident  country  nobility  of  early  modern  times,  was  very  far  from  irrespon- 
sible anarchism.  Yet  the  knight  at  arms  was  never  trained  to  fight  in  close  and 
disciplined  battle  order;  he  was  at  the  opposite  pole  from  the  Spartan  hoplite, 
trained  to  perfectly  timed  shield-to-shield  dressing  with  his  fellows  in  the  line 
of  battle.  The  knight  was  never  really  melted  into  the  soldier;  he  always  stood 

He  stood  out  so  much  that  in  fact  he  is  one  of  the  prime  exemplars  of 
that  eternal  theme  in  Western  moral  history,  the  agonistic  competition.  The 
knight  seems  at  least  as  determined  to  excel  as  ever  the  Homeric  hero  was. 
His  supreme  virtue  is  honor;  and  though  at  its  best  the  concept  of  honor  is 
much  more  than  this,  it  has  always  an  element  we  nowadays  cheapen  in  the 
term  "face."  Honor  consists  in  being  honored,  honored  by  coming  out  on  top 
and  being  recognized  in  that  position.  It  seems  odd  now  that  anyone  should 
have  believed  that  the  individual  in  the  Middle  Ages  did  not  stand  out  as  an 
individual,  that  this  was  an  age  of  collective  effort  and  submergence  of  the 
ego  (in  the  old  use,  not  the  Freudian  one,  of  the  word)  in  some  noble  com- 
mon thing. 

The  Middle  Ages  did  not  have  the  vulgar  word  "publicity,"  but  they  had 

8 1  cannot  begin  to  discuss  the  socio-economic  aspects  of  medieval  culture  in  a  book  of 
this  sort.  The  reader  who  wishes  to  refresh  himself  in  these  matters  can  start  with  some 
of  the  books  suggested  on  pp.  30-31  of  Brinton,  Christopher,  and  Wolff,  Modern  Civili- 
zation, Englewood  Cliffs,  N.J.,  Prentice-Hall,  1957.  For  the  complete  beginner,  Will 
Durant's  The  Age  of  Faith  is  recommended;  also  W.  C.  Bark,  Origins  of  the  Medieval 
World,  Stanford  University  Press,  1958. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

exactly  what  that  word  means.  Here  is  Jean  Froissart  quoting  a  feudal  lord 
setting  the  conditions  of  one  of  those  public-private  combats  of  knights,  the 
"combat  des  Trentes,"  that  unfortunately  did  not  settle  the  business  of  war 
even  then:  "And  let  us  right  there  try  ourselves  and  do  so  much  that  people 
will  speak  of  it  in  future  times  in  halls,  in  palaces,  in  public  places  and  else- 
where throughout  the  world."9  But  the  point  hardly  needs  driving  home.  The 
thirst  for  glory  was  surely  a  medieval  thirst.  It  is  familiar  enough  in  silly 
forms,  as  in  the  career  of  a  Richard  Coeur  de  Lion.  But  do  not  be  misled  by 
our  modern  superstition  that  the  successful  are  above  illusions.  Richard's 
hard-bitten  and  practical  rival  Philip  Augustus  of  France  was  also  a  knightly 
type;  his  gloire  was  at  least  as  far  from  Christ's  as  was  Richard's. 

But  the  knight  was  a  Christian.  Surely  was  not  the  bitter  competitiveness 
of  the  old  male  warrior  society  somewhat  softened  over  the  old  Homeric 
standards?  It  was  unquestionably  so  modified.  In  the  first  place,  the  code 
insisted  on  gentleness  toward  women  and  children,  respect  for  the  clergy, 
and  for  the  masses  at  least  some  protection,  exemption  from  the  actual  pres- 
sures of  combat.  If,  in  the  second  place,  the  code  was,  especially  in  respect 
to  treatment  of  social  inferiors,  often  violated,  if  the  knight  in  a  temper  was 
capable  of  shocking  cruelties  even  toward  the  weak,  let  alone  toward  a  con- 
quered foe,  he  was  also  subject  to  painful  and  exceedingly  real  bouts  of 
conscience-stricken  horror  when  he  woke  to  what  he  had  done.  As  I  wish 
to  keep  insisting,  he  did  believe  in  his  religion,  he  did  know  right  from  wrong, 
and  he  knew,  in  a  way  the  first  Prankish  warriors  did  not,  that  his  God  pun- 
ished sin.  This  knowledge  did  not  keep  him  from  sin,  but  it  did  insure,  the 
clergy  aiding,  frequent  and  sometimes  spectacular  repentance.  The  knight 
who  had  had  a  beaten  enemy  castrated  in  a  fit  of  anger  might  take  up  the  cross 
in  penance,  or  make  some  religious  endowment,  or  even  do  something  for  the 
family  of  the  ruined  man.10 

The  code,  moreover,  by  no  means  existed  solely  in  the  breach.  There  were 
knights  of  impeccable  physical  prowess  who  nonetheless  deserve  that  then-new 
word  "gentleman";  they  were  gentle,  not  harsh,  not  forever  challenging.  The 

9  "Et  la  endroit  nous  esprouvons,  et  faisons  tout  que  on  en  parle  ou  tamps  a  venir,  en 
sales,  en  palais,  en  plaches  et  en  aultres  lieus  par  le  monde."  Oeuvres  de  Froissart,  ed. 
Kervyn  de  Lettenhove,  Brussels,  1867-1877,  Vol.  V,  p.  292.  Note  that  these  knights  want 
admiration  not  only  from  their  peer  groups,  but  from  the  "public." 
10 1  know  of  no  single  work  in  which  this  phase  of  the  knightly  soul,  this  more  than 
black-and-white  contrast  between  shocking  cruelty  and  deeply  felt  repentance  is  better 
brought  out  than  in  Zo6  Oldenbourg's  admirable  historical  novel  The  World  Is  Not 
Enough,  New  York,  Pantheon,  1955.  The  original  French  has  the  title  Argile  (clay). 


The  Middle  Ages 

knight  of  Chaucer's  "Knight's  Tale"  has  become  a  set  example,  but  he  is  real 
enough.  Best  of  all,  perhaps,  is  the  actual  Jean  de  Joinville,  whose  memoirs  are 
one  of  the  most  valuable  of  medieval  documents.  Joinville  was  devoted  to  his 
king,  the  Louis  of  France  who  became  St.  Louis.  He  followed  the  king  on  his 
futile  and  outdated  crusade  and  tells  simply  and  quite  uncritically  the  story 
of  these  bungled  wars.  He  does  not  seem  at  all  aware  that  they  were  bungled, 
at  all  aware  that  the  French  feudal  nobility  were  an  ill-disciplined,  prideful, 
and  inefficient  set  of  fighting  men.  But  the  knightly  ideal  has — and  this  is 
important — very  little  place  for  the  critical  intellect.  The  normal  dose  of 
neurotic  complaining,  which  goes  with  the  knightly  real  life  as  with  all  forms 
of  real  life,  had  to  be  rather  severely  repressed,  one  guesses,  with  some  of 
these  gentlemen,  and  crops  up  most  obviously  in  their  bouts  with  their  con- 
science, their  concern  with  their  honor,  and,  as  we  shall  shortly  see,  in  their 
extraordinary  later  preoccupation  with  courtly  love.  We  are  today  so  thor- 
oughly used  to  associating  brightness  with  complaining  that  a  Joinville,  who 
never  complains  about  the  structure  of  his  society,  the  policies  of  his  king, 
the  state  of  the  universe,  seems  not  quite  bright.  Clearly  he  was  by  no  means 
unintelligent;  he  managed  his  own  affairs  well,  he  wrote  simply  and  clearly, 
and  he  knew  his  own  limitations. 

It  must  not  be  assumed  that  the  medieval  knightly  ideal,  to  say  nothing  of 
knightly  practice,  was  a  static  one.  Over  six  or  seven  centuries  from  Caro- 
lingian  times  there  is  a  clear  process  of  growth,  and  of  decline  or  corruption. 
That  noble  document  of  the  early  years  the  Chanson  de  Roland,  a  recited 
epic  poem  of  one  of  Charlemagne's  expeditions  against  the  Moslems  in  Spain, 
is  no  contemporaneous  document.  It  represents  a  long  line  of  professional 
troubadours  or  minstrels  who  worked  over  traditional  materials,  and  it  is 
surely  not  without  a  touch  of  deliberate  "primitivism."  The  paladins  seem 
so  noble,  so  simple,  so  innocent,  so  athletic,  so  damned  knightly  that  they 
can  hardly  have  been  real.  They  clearly  live  by  violence,  but  it  is  a  nice  clean 
violence,  with  no  hint  whatever  of  matters  later  to  be  associated  with  the  name 
of  the  Marquis  de  Sade.  They  do  God's  work  against  the  infidel,  but  again 
with  no  worries,  and  certainly  with  no  trace  of  theological  hatred.  They  hold 
their  honor  very  dear  indeed,  far  dearer  than  success,  especially  military 
success.  They  are  lions,  in  fact,  with  no  fox  in  them. 

As  in  Western  Europe  from  the  eleventh  century  on  all  the  material 
indexes  start  on  upward,  as  the  self-sufficient  feudal-manorial  society  grad- 
ually turns  into  a  modern  capitalist  society,  as  the  modern  state,  in  fact,  takes 
shape,  lawyers,  bankers,  accountants,  all  sorts  of  professionals  begin  to  take 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

over  the  real  work  of  running  things;  rather  soon,  indeed,  in  view  of  the 
modern  liberal's  notion  that  the  soldier  is  particularly  stupid  and  unenter- 
prising, the  professionals  take  over  even  the  business  of  war.  The  individual 
knight  could,  and  did,  sometimes  adapt  himself  to  these  changes,  especially 
in  Great  Britain  and  in  the  Low  Countries.  Still,  the  class  of  knights  as  a  whole 
was  left  with  nothing  like  enough  to  do  and  with  a  fine  impractical  set  of  ideals 
as  to  how  to  do  it.  I  am  here  obliged  to  scamp  a  good  deal  of  importance  to  the 
social  and  economic  historian,  but  the  upshot  of  a  process  that  begins  to  be 
noticeable  as  far  back  as  the  thirteenth,  "greatest  of  centuries,"  is  the  creation 
of  a  privileged  class  molded  and  trained  for  an  occupation  and  status  that  had 
in  reality  ceased  to  exist — that  of  feudal  seigneur.  But  the  class  continued  to 
enjoy  its  privileges;  and  it  made  use  of  its  abundant  leisure  to  push  the  knightly 
ideal  into  two  related  extravagances,  the  combat  of  the  tourney  and  courtly 

Individual  combat  between  champions  goes  back  to  the  very  beginnings 
of  knighthood  in  the  Dark  Ages.  A  perhaps  too  optimistic  or  intellectualist 
sociological  concept  suggests  that  in  their  origins  all  institutions  arise  to  fill  a 
need,  and  at  first  do  fill  it  well  enough.  At  any  rate,  it  can  be  argued  that  where 
these  fights  were  struggles  between  champions  of  given  sides  in  a  real  conflict, 
they  were  socially  useful.  Intellectually,  once  you  accept  the  premises  they 
were  based  on,  trial  by  combat  and  even  trial  by  ordeal  are  nice,  clean-cut 
methods  of  deciding  disputes  among  us  poor  fallible  humans.  If  God  directly 
and  immediately  and  constantly  intervenes  in  the  daily  happenings  of  the 
world,  then  obviously  he  does  decide  which  of  two  fairly  matched  knights 
wins  in  a  judicial  combat,  and  he  decides  it  justly.11 

Even  at  the  beginning,  these  knightly  combats  were  in  part  agonistic  sport 
as  well  as  private  war  or  a  method  of  judicial  decision  and  a  necessary  train- 
ing for  the  wider  actual  battlefield.  As  true  law  courts,  in  our  sense,  grew  up, 
as  with  the  Hundred  Years'  War  vulgar  infantry  began  the  long  process  of 
making  war  serious  and  deadly  once  more  for  the  many,  these  joustings 
came  to  be  little  more  than  ostentatious  mock  war,  an  organized  aristocratic 
sport.  As  time  went  on  the  rules  and  conventions  of  the  jousting  got  more  and 
more  complex,  the  armor  got  more  complete,  more  rhinoceros-like,  and  the 
sport  got  somewhat  less  dangerous  to  life  and  limb,  though  to  the  very  end  it 

n  God  himself,  of  course,  would  not  approve  a  hopelessly  unequal  combat,  as,  for  in- 
stance, between  a  completely  inexperienced  fighter  and  a  tried  and  mature  champion,  or 
as  between  a  heavyweight  and  a  flyweight 


The  Middle  Ages 

must  have  taken  great  courage  to  run  full  tilt  into  an  oncoming  opponent. 
These  tourneys,  as  might  be  expected,  exhibit  full  cultural  lag,  and  survive 
well  into  the  Renaissance.  By  a  nice  irony,  the  Cromwell  family  owed  at  least 
as  much  to  the  jousting  prowess  of  Sir  Richard  Cromwell,  who  got  himself 
knighted  for  his  victories  by  Henry  VIE,  as  to  Richard's  Uncle  Thomas,  the 
able,  realistic,  unscrupulous,  and  "modern"  liquidator  of  monastic  wealth.12 

The  knight  in  these  tourneys,  it  is  well  known,  was  fighting  for  his  lady 
love.  We  come  now  to  a  much  more  important  phase  of  the  late  Middle  Ages 
than  the  sport  of  jousting.  Courtly  love  has  an  elaborate  and,  unless  you  are 
prepared  for  it,  fantastically  unreal  literature,  but  it  is  much  more  than  a 
phase  of  literary  history.  Courtly  love  is  an  ethics,  a  religion,  an  obsession. 
It  is  to  the  historian  of  Western  morals  one  of  those  exceptional  developments, 
one  of  those  aberrations,  in  this  one  respect  analogous  to  Greek  pederasty,  in 
which  the  physical  facts  of  sex,  complicated  enough  in  themselves,  get  blown 
up  into  something  huge,  something  that  comes  to  take  up  the  whole  of  living. 
Unlike  Greek  pederasty,  however,  courtly  love  is  still  with  us,  transmuted, 
popularized,  seized  upon  by  the  octopus  we  call  publicity,  so  altered  that  the 
noble  lords  and  ladies  who  once  pursued  it  would  hardly  recognize  it.  But 
Isolde  still  dies  her  love-death — and  not  only  on  the  operatic  stage. 

We  must  have  a  brief  preliminary  here.  Perhaps  nowhere  does  our  con- 
temporary reluctance  to  come  out  solidly  with  a  neat  formula  of  separation 
between  normal  and  abnormal  show  up  so  often  as  in  the  matter  of  sex.  Yet 
the  journalist-psychologist  formula  that  "We  are  all  abnormal,  therefore  we 
are  all  normal"  is  surely  great  nonsense.  Ethics  and  conduct  in  the  field  of 
sex  relations  are  indeed  most  varied;  study  of  non-Western  cultures  has 
driven  this  home  firmly.  Even  in  the  West,  there  is,  so  to  speak,  no  compact 
norm,  certainly  not  what  the  Victorians  thought  of  as  a  norm.  Still,  there  is 
over  the  centuries  a  kind  of  wide  zone  of  normality,  a  zone  in  which,  above 
all,  matters  sexual  do  not  fully  occupy  every  moment  of  waking  and  sleeping, 
even  for  those  privileged  few  who  are  not  obliged  to  work  for  a  living,  a  zone 
in  which  matters  sexual  are  not  thoroughly  mixed  with  matters  philosophical, 
religious,  cosmological.  In  short,  medieval  courtly  love  is  an  aberration. 
Whether  its  modern  variants,  literary  romantic  love,  Hollywood  love,  or  any 
other  mass-produced  love,  are  aberrations  is  another,  more  difficult  question. 

The  literaiy  origins  of  courtly  love  lie  in  the  Mediterranean,  and  specif- 
ic Maurice  Ashley,  The  Greatness  of  Oliver  Cromwell,  New  York,  Macmillan,  1958, 
p.  27. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

ically  in  the  troubadours  who  sang  in  Provencal  from  the  twelfth  century  on.13 
There  are,  no  doubt,  deeper  origins  in  Greek  and  Roman  culture,  for  these 
admirable  pagans  clearly  did  not  quite  take  sex  in  their  stride.  Aphrodite  and 
Eros  are  an  uncomfortable  pair,  and  their  suppression  by  Christianity  was 
quite  incomplete.  Yet,  the  rise  of  the  cult  of  love  and  of  the  woman — the 
Woman — must  have  had  deep  roots  in  the  whole  situation  of  the  knightly 
class:  its  heritage  of  excessive  masculinity,  its  counteracting  inheritance  of 
Christian  ideas  of  love  and  gentleness  (remember,  ideas  do  have  conse- 
quences, if  not  always  obviously  logical  ones),  its  exasperations,  frustrations, 
and,  above  all,  its  increasing  divorce  from  the  real  work,  the  real  rewards,  of 
this  world.  These  gentlemen  needed  the  aid  and  comfort  the  ewig  weiblfche, 
the  Woman,  can  always  bring.  Fortunately,  men  can  always  invent  her  in 
their  hour  of  need* 

The  church  found  it  useful,  and  probably,  so  great  was  the  fashionable 
rage,  necessary  to  adapt  the  Woman  to  its  needs.  Hence  the  cult  of  the  Virgin, 
which,  in  spite  of  all  the  talk  about  a  syncretic  Isis  and  Earth  Mother,  is 
much  more  a  medieval  phenomenon  than  one  of  early  Christianity.  And  as 
the  Virgin  of  common  conventional  Christianity,  the  Woman  was  indeed 
tamed,  disciplined,  caught  in  the  unconstricting  net  of  common  sense,  so  that 
she  became  almost  the  pure  consolation  that  the  unhappy  Henry  Adams 
writes  of  so  warmly — for  an  Adams — in  Mont-Saint-Michel  and  Chartres. 
Our  Lady,  duly  rendered  orthodox,  was  a  symbol  quite  as  devoid  of  the  meta- 
erotic  complications  we  all  know  so  well  nowadays  as  of  the  more  rugged 
sexuality  of  the  driving  flesh.  She  remains,  in  spite  of  Protestant  and  free- 
thinking  reproaches,  a  triumph  of  priestly  wisdom,  well  understood  of  the 

Not  so  the  Woman  of  the  troubadours.  Through  whole  cycles  of  trans- 
muted legends,  of  which  the  Arthurian  cycle,  and,  within  that,  the  Tristan 
theme,  can  be  fairly  singled  out  as  central,  she  made  her  devastating  way, 
sometimes  femme  fatale,  la  belle  dame  sans  merci,  Isolde  of  the  White  Hands, 
Laura  or  Beatrice,  in  the  end  pure  longing,  pure  swooning,  pure  death. 

13  Denis  de  Rougemont,  Love  in  the  Western  World,  p.  75.  This  is  a  book  indispensable 
for  the  student  of  the  theme.  The  American  reader  must  not  be  put  off  by  M.  de  Rouge- 
monfs  cleverness;  this  is  a  serious  scholarly  work,  though  admirably  compressed.  M. 
de  Rougemont's  ingeniously  established  link  between  the  Cathari  of  the  suppressed 
Albigensian  heresy  and  the  troubadours  is  not  essential  to  the  rest  of  his  book.  It  is  one 
of  those  interesting  scholar's  affiliations  of  ideas,  and  by  no  means  implausible;  but  I 
suspect  there  is  more  in  the  developed  Tristan  myth,  the  love  of  love,  than  a  Mani- 
chaean  revenge  on  Christian  monism.  So,  to  be  fair,  does  M.  de  Rougemont 


The  Middle  Ages 

In  dem  wogenden  Schwall, 
in  dem  tonenden  Schall, 
in  des  Welt-Athems 
wehendem  All — 
ertrinken — 
versinken — 
unbewusst — 
hochste  Lust.1* 

It  was  a  twisting  and  devious  way,  above  all — and  this  is  of  much  importance 
— a  way  that  hardly  ever  touched,  and  then  never  for  long,  the  bedroom.  We 
are,  of  course,  dealing  with  very  subtle  matters.  It  is  crude  to  say  that  courtly 
love  is  a  deliberate  playing  with  fire,  but  the  fine  old  cliche  has  its  uses.  One 
suspects  that  the  fire  was  rarely  a  great  consuming  conflagration.  The  chem- 
istry of  human  sex  has  pretty  unheroic  limits,  as  compared  with  the  capacity 
of  the  human  soul  for  wanting  something  more. 

It  is  not  that  courtly  love  was  usually,  or  even  often,  of  the  kind  sometimes 
miscalled  "platonic."  By  a  firm  convention  among  the  literary,  it  could  not 
possibly  be  love  between  man  and  wife.  It  could  not  by  an  even  more  obvious 
convention — without  which,  no  poem — run  smoothly.  It  had  to  confront  and 
overcome  obstacle  after  obstacle,  the  more  unlikely,  the  more  unnecessary 
the  obstacle,  the  better;  it  had,  to  paraphrase  the  familiar  misquotation  from 
Tertullian,  to  go  on  the  principle  of  amo,  quia  absurdum.  One  may  distin- 
guish two  lines  of  development  of  the  tradition,  both  present  in  the  Roman  de 
la  Rose,  a  thirteenth-century  poem  put  together  from  the  work  of  two  quite 
separate  and  different  poets,  Guillaume  de  Lorris,  of  the  first  half  of  the  cen- 
tury, Jean  de  Meung,  of  the  second  half.  The  Lorris  part  is  all  allegory,  a 

14  These  are  Isolde's  last  words.  They  are  quite  untranslatable — thank  God — into  so 
pedestrian  a  language  as  my  English.  The  "Authentic  libretto"  of  Wagner's  opera  as 
published  by  Crown  Publishers,  New  York,  1938,  makes  the  following  inglorious  at- 
tempt (p.  347) : 

In  the  breezes  around, 
in  the  harmony  sound 
in  the  world's  driving 
whirlwind  be  drown'd — 
and  sinking, 
be  drinking — 
in  a  kiss, 
highest  bliss! 

Our  American  insistence  on  having  these  operas  in  the  original  tongue  is  not  mere 
social  snobbery,  nor  even  realistic  concession  to  the  need  of  hiring  German  singers. 
Isolde's  last,  last  word,  "Lust,"  is  certainly  not  "bliss";  I  suggest,  in  our  own  undignified 
American,  that  "superlonging"  comes  close. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

sort  of  symbolic  and  almost,  but  not  quite,  platonic  investment  of  a  lady 
whose  virtue  is  both  obstacle  and  reward.  The  part  contributed  by  Jean  de 
Meung  is  more  clearly  in  what  Americans  thir>Tc  of  as  the  Gallic  tradition;  the 
language  is  the  language  of  sensual  enjoyment,  and  the  denouement  is  not  at 
all  uncertain  or  allegorical. 

As  M.  de  Rougemont  points  out,  these  two  lines  run  on  well  into  modern 
times,  the  first  or  meta-erotic  one  through  Dante  and  Petrarch  to  Rousseau's 
Nouvelle  Heloise  and  even  to  the  modern  French  novel  of  love,  which  until 
very  recently  was  most  cerebral,  if  not  precisely  spiritual,  and  by  no  means 
"broad"  or  naturalistic  in  its  details;  the  second  or  realistic  one  through  "the 
lower  levels  of  French  literature — to  gauloiserie  and  the  schools  of  broad 
Gallic  jokes,  to  controversial  rationalism,  and  to  a  curiously  exacerbated 
misogyny,  naturalism,  and  man's  reduction  to  sex."15 

For  the  moralist,  both  strains  have  this  in  common,  that  they  represent 
a  turning  inward  to  introspection,  a  spiritualization  or  a  materialization,  of 
the  old  agonistic  competitive  drive,  and  this  precisely  in  a  society  originally 
most  masculine,  soldierly,  extraverted.  Courtly  love,  however,  by  no  means 
softened  or  extinguished  the  bitterness  of  the  agon.  The  Woman  in  this  tradi- 
tion is  far  from  the  Virgin  of  Christianity,  however  much  the  poets  of  the 
Middle  Ages  may  confuse  them  at  times.  There  is  no  doubt  that  over  the 
medieval  centuries  courtly  love  and  its  accompaniments  did  bring  to  the 
European  nobility  refinements  of  manners,  a  kind  of  civility  that  was  by  no 
means  without  its  value  as  a  moral  instrument.  But  in  the  sense  I  have  sought 
in  the  previous  chapter  to  define  one  essential  moral  strain  of  Christianity — 
the  disciplining  of  human  competitiveness  into  co-operation,  spiritually  the 
extinction  of  pride  and  the  exaltation  of  humility — courtly  love  brought  no 
help  to  Christianity,  but,  rather,  set  itself  up  against  Christianity.  Courtly  love 
at  the  least  sublimated  was  a  sport  in  which  there  was  a  victor  and  a  loser;  at 
its  most  sublimated  it  was  a  series  of  mutual  stimulations  to  a  perpetual 
longing  for  more,  more  of  something — more,  certainly,  of  suffering. 

E  perche  'I  mio  marfir  non  giunga  a  riva 
Mille  volte  il  di  moro  e  mille  nasco.16 

Tristan  and  Isolde  were,  after  all,  adulterers.  The  device  of  the  love  potion 

is  De  Rougemont,  Love  in  the  Western  World,  p.  176.  Like  all  such  dualisms,  this  is  an 
imperfect  one  in  face  of  the  complexities  of  human  nature.  Is  there  a  scientist's  concern 
with  sex  that  fits  neither  category? 

ie  petrarch,  Sonnet  CLXIV  (164).  Literally,  "And  since  my  martyrdom  does  not  come 
to  end,  I  die  a  thousand  times  each  day,  am  born  a  thousand." 


The  Middle  Ages 

and  Brangane's  fatal  error  seems  just  that — a  literary  device,  and  no  reflec- 
tion of  a  tragic  destiny  or  necessity.  Or,  if  the  poets  were  appealing  to  a  pagan 
concept  of  necessity,  they  were  thereby  underlining  their  heresy.  In  Christian 
terms,  the  lovers  were  sinners  who  never  did  repent  sincerely,  who  relapsed, 
and  ended  in  a  most  un-Christian,  but  perhaps  quite  Freudian,  fulfillment  of 
a  death  wish. 

It  would  be  unfair  to  the  medieval  knightly  ideal  to  dismiss  it  with  these 
perversions  of  the  jousting  tourney  and  the  tradition  of  courtly  love.  At  its 
best  and  simplest  it  deserves  high  rank  among  the  working  ideals  of  this  im- 
perfect world.  It  has  suffered  from  the  praises  of  the  literary  romantics  of  the 
school  of  when-knighthood-was-in-flower,  has,  like  other  phases  of  medieval 
culture,  been  used  as  a  stick  to  beat  the  present  with.  Most  of  its  central 
concepts  as  summarized  in  the  word  "chivalry"  run  contrary  to  the  deep  egali- 
tarianism  of  our  own  day.  But  it  was  of  remarkable  civilizing  power.  Dip,  if 
only  briefly,  into  Gregory  of  Tours  and  then  into  Joinville,  seven  centuries 
later.  Something  has  happened  that  one  is  almost  tempted  to  call  moral 


The  saint  is  the  Christian  hero.  His  life,  too,  is  an  agon,  for  the  church  accepts 
as  real  and  important  this  world  of  change  and  struggle.  The  saint's  struggle 
is  not  with  his  fellow  men  but  with  evil;  his  victory  is  not  an  athletic  or  artistic 
or  intellectual  first,  but  a  conquest  of  evil  in  himself  and  in  others.  His  glory 
is  not  a  personal  glory.  His  victories  are  God's,  for  the  saint  is  always  what 
the  pristine  sense  of  "martyr"  implies,  a  witness,  a  living  evidence,  of  the 
grace  of  God,  of  God's  governance  of  the  universe,  which  is  not  to  be  proved 
or  witnessed  by  ordinary  naturalistic  means  as  in  law,  politics,  or  natural 

So  much  for  the  ideal.  The  real  here  is  not  so  much  spotted,  not  so  much 
in  obvious  contradiction  with  the  ideal,  as  richer  in  concrete  detail,  more 
varied,  more  colorful.  There  are  many  saints  from  the  earliest  centuries  about 
whom  in  a  naturalistic-historical  sense  we  know  almost  nothing  at  all  reliable; 
such  lives  as  we  do  have  are  no  more  than  documents  for  social  and  intel- 

1T  "Saint'*  is  for  the  sacramental  Christian  churches,  Roman  Catholic,  Eastern  Orthodox, 
Anglican,  and  the  like  a  word  with  an  exact  meaning.  It  refers  to  what  one  may  call  a 
status;  in  this  sense  even  evangelical  Protestants  are  no  longer  as  afraid  of  it  as  they 
were.  "Saint"  and  "saintly"  have  also  loose  vulgar  uses  as  no  more  than  emphatic  ways 
of  saying  "good"  or  "holy,"  but  I  have  the  impression  that  this  loose  usage  is  not,  in 
fact,  very  common.  As  words  go  in  ordinary  discourse,  "saint"  is  a  precise  one. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

lectual  history,  full  of  miracles,  sufferings,  echoes  from  the  primitive  past.  But 
of  the  saints  real  to  us,  and  to  come  down  no  further  than  the  High  Middle 
Ages,  a  sampling  must  show  a  wide  range  of  human  personality,  of  role,  even 
of  Weltanschauung.  From  Paul  himself  through  Jerome,  Augustine,  Gregory 
the  Great,  Boniface,  Bernard  of  Clairvaux,  Thomas  Aquinas,  Thomas  a 
Becket,  Francis  of  Assisi,  Dominic,  Bonaventura,  Louis  of  France,  to  take 
only  familiar  names,  the  range  is  wide  indeed. 

No  polar  dualism  will  work,  even  for  these  few.  The  contrast,  suggested 
by  the  vocabulary  of  the  Middle  Ages  themselves,  between  the  vita  activa  and 
the  vita  contemplativa,  will  not  stand  up,  even  if  it  is  interpreted  not  so  much 
in  terms  of  role  as  in  terms  of  temperament,  disposition,  philosophy.  St.  Paul, 
as  would  be  clear  had  we  no  more  than  his  letters  to  the  Corinthians,  was  a 
gifted  organizer  and  Administrator.  But  those  words  to  an  American  hardly 
suggest  the  mystic,  the  eloquent  preacher,  the  seeker — and  Paul  was  all  of 
these,  and,  perhaps  more  than  these  flat  words  suggest,  a  troubled  soul.  This 
list  is  full  of  great  men  of  action,  men  who  guided  the  church  in  this  world 
with  such  skill  that  in  the  High  Middle  Ages  it  was  able  to  challenge  for  a 
time,  politically,  and  in  this  world,  all  political  organizations  in  the  West. 
Gregory  simply  as  a  lay  ruler  would  have  won  from  history  his  title  of  "the 
Great."  Bonaventura  must  figure  in  any  history  of  Christian  mysticism,  yet 
this  Franciscan  played  an  important  part  in  the  organization  of  his  order  and 
belongs  also  to  ecclesiastical  history  in  its  narrow  sense.  Bernard  of  Clairvaux 
disliked  intellectual  reformers  such  as  Abelard  and  fought  them;  he  himself 
was  an  emotional  reformer,  one  who  has  left  a  great  mark  on  the  history  of 

There  is  no  doubt  a  clear  limit  toward  the  pole  of  practical  administrative 
skills  and  successes.  The  Christian  saint  as  an  ideal,  and  to  an  extraordinary 
extent  in  reality,  is  never  merely  a  this-worldly  manipulator  of  men  and  things. 
Our  vocabulary  of  cliches — always  useful  to  historians — lets  us  talk  about 
captains  of  industry,  indeed,  about  Napoleons  of  industry,  but  never  about 
saints  of  industry.  The  anti-Christian,  or  merely  the  anti-medievalist,  will 
reply  that  of  course  the  respectability  and  prestige  of  the  church  prevents  any 
such  picturesque  and  fruitful  comparison  entering  into  our  common  lan- 
guage. This  is  no  doubt  true,  and  hardly  a  discredit  to  the  church,  but  it  does 
not  exhaust  the  meaning  of  the  facts.  The  Christian  saint,  no  matter  how  well 
he  has  done  his  work  in  this  world,  has  by  his  life  given  evidence  that  to  him 
this  world  is  not  enough. 

But  is  the  other  one?  It  seems  clear  that  the  saint  shares  often  a  great 


The  Middle  Ages 

deal  of  the  primitive  Christian  revulsion  from,  emotional  rejection  of,  hatred 
for,  this  world  of  eating,  drinking,  lusting,  idling,  bickering,  damaging,  and 
conforming.  Yes,  you  may  pursue  these  dull  formulas  on  until  you  get  to  the 
realities  of  madness  and  the  Freudian  death  wish.  There  is  all  this  in  Chris- 
tianity, because  there  is  all  this  in  us  Westerners.  The  Christian  church  and 
after  Luther,  in  the  long  run,  most  of  the  churches  have,  unlike  many  of  the 
surrogate  secular  churches  of  the  Enlightenment,  recognized  that  this  dark, 
rebellious,  impatient  lusting  after  an  end  to  lusting  is  there,  in  us,  not  to  be 
denied  but  to  be  controlled,  tamed,  disciplined,  perhaps  even  to  be  trans- 
muted into  a  kind  of  conformity. 

The  church,  in  short,  has  had  its  troubles  with  the  mystic  vein  in  the 
Christian  heritage.  With  the  quieter,  pietistic  sort  of  mysticism  the  church  has 
been  successful  indeed.  There  is  too  much  historical  uncertainty  about  the  life 
and  personality  of  Thomas  Hammerken,  known  as  Thomas  a  Kempis,  and 
about  the  authorship  of  the  Imitation  of  Christ  for  canonization  of  the  per- 
son; but  if  it  were  possible  to  canonize  a  book,  outside  of  the  Bible,  the 
Imitation  of  Christ  would  have  been  canonized  long  ago.  Here  the  prospect 
of  another  world  is  a  consolation  and  a  steadying  support  in  this  one,  no 
goad  to  rebellion,  no  stimulant  to  the  passions.  The  outsider  cannot  be  so 
sure  about  those  two  Spanish  mystics  of  the  Catholic  Reformation,  St.  Theresa 
and  St.  John  of  the  Cross.  Their  passions  look  dangerously  clinical,  and  most 
inadequately  sublimated,  from  the  point  of  view  of  quiet,  conforming  Chris- 
tianity. The  church  has  accepted  as  saints  some  of  the  earlier  German  ladies, 
such  as  Elizabeth  of  Hungary,  whose  mystic  exaltation  looks  from  this  dis- 
tance quite  compatible  with  the  sobrieties.  It  has  always  had  its  doubts,  how- 
ever, about  Meister  Eckhart,  who,  already  in  the  fourteenth  century,  seems 
too  German  to  be  true: 

God  is  all  things;  all  things  are  God.  The  Father  begets  me,  his  son,  without 
cease.  I  say  more:  he  begets  in  me  himself,  and  in  himself  me.  The  eye  with  which 
I  see  God  is  the  same  eye  with  which  God  sees  me.  ...  My  eye  and  God's  eye 
are  one  eye.18 

Pantheism  must  always  get  short  shrift  from  orthodox  theology,  for  it  destroys 
the  whole  central  drama  of  Christ's  epiphany,  to  say  nothing  of  what  I  have 
called  the  minimal  moral  puritanism  of  Christianity.  Aggressive,  mystical 
pantheism  like  that  of  Meister  Eckhart  is  a  dangerous  invitation  to  rebellion. 
The  Germans  are  no  doubt  quite  justified  in  regarding  these  German  and 

*8  Quoted  from  Kuno  Francke,  A  History  of  German  Literature  as  Determined  by 
Social  Forces,  New  York,  Holt,  1903,  p.  1 10. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

Dutch  mystics  of  the  late  Middle  Ages  as  precursors  of  their  Reformation,  if 
not  of  Kant  and  HegeL 

St.  Francis  of  Assisi  sets  the  problem  of  the  saint  and  conformity  in  its 
sharpest  focus.  His  life,  after  his  conversion  in  the  midst  of  a  youth  of  worldly 
pleasure,  seems  to  catch  once  more  that  note  of  primitive  Christianity  so 
difficult  for  most  of  us,  touched  as  we  are  by  the  natural  science,  the  rational- 
ism, the  liberalism,  the  comforts,  and  the  sentimentalities  of  the  modern 
world,  to  hear  at  all.  Francis,  it  is  often  said,  really  did  seek  to  imitate 
Christ,  to  relive  the  life  of  Christ  on  earth,  but,  do  not  forget,  the  Christ  who 
said,  "There  be  some  of  them  that  stand  here,  which  shall  in  no  wise  taste  of 
death,  till  they  see  the  Son  of  man  coming  in  his  kingdom."  There  is  in  Francis 
more  than  a  touch  of  the  chiliast  To  him  the  imitation  of  Christ  was  not 
gentle,  sober,  polite  conformity  to  the  ritual,  the  decencies,  the  conventions 
of  a  church  that  had  long  since  accepted  this  world  as  not  to  be  greatly 
changed.  It  was  perhaps  not  quite  imitation  of  the  angry  Christ  who  over- 
threw the  tables  of  the  money-changers  in  the  temple;  it  was  not  quite  imita- 
tion of  the  Christ  who  delivered  to  the  multitude  in  Jerusalem  that  sermon — 
fit  and  proper  foil  to  the  Sermon  on  the  Mount — in  which  there  resounds  the 
most  Christian  curse  "Woe  unto  you,  scribes  and  Pharisees,  hypocrites!"19 
Francis  is  nearer  the  Christ  of  the  marriage  of  Cana,  of  the  woman  taken  in 
adultery,  of  the  advice  to  the  young  man  who  had  great  possessions  that  he 
sell  all  and  give  it  to  the  poor.20  But  the  love  Francis  preached  and  practiced 
was  not  the  modern  humanitarian's  desire  that  we  should  all  be  comfortable 
and  therefore  good  here  on  earth.  There  is  in  Francis,  though  the  modern 
sentimentalist  must  fail  to  see  it,  the  vein  of  iron  that  runs  through  all  Chris- 
tianity, at  least  until  modern  times,  a  vein  that  has  sources  in  the  Stoa  as  well 
as  in  Sinai.  Franciscan  poverty  was  not  a  form  of  enjoyment,  not  even,  thougji 
the  doubter  with  a  smack  of  psychology  will  continue  to  doubt,  a  perverse 
and  masochistic  form  of  enjoyment.  Francis  was  in  fact  a  very  medieval  man, 
one  very  hard  for  a  modern  to  understand. 

Poverty  was  to  the  first  Franciscans  not  merely  abstention  from  the  com- 
forts and  prestige  and  all  the  rest  that  goes  with  what  we  call  wealth;  it  meant 
also  abstention  from  the  kind  of  possessions  Francis  abhorred  at  least  as  much 
as  wealth,  that  is,  learning,  theological  skills,  all  the  possessions  of  the  intel- 
lect One  suspects  that  Francis  himself  had  he  lived  would  have  been  even 
more  indignant  at  the  reputation  of  his  order  for  learning  than  at  its  great 

19  Matthew  21: 12;  23: 13  ff. 

20  John  2:1;  8:3;  Matthew  19:21. 


The  Middle  Ages 

material  wealth,  both  achieved  in  a  short  generation  after  the  saint's  death. 
The  wealth  was,  after  all,  a  corporate  wealth,  and,  as  individuals,  members 
of  the  mendicant  orders  did  not  often  fall  into  worldly  self-indulgence,  as  had 
some  of  the  earlier  monks;  but  the  reputation  of  a  Robert  Grosseteste  or  of 
his  pupil  Roger  Bacon,  both  great  scholars,  both  precursors  of  modern  natural 
science,  was  an  individual  reputation. 

Perhaps  a  profounder  and  more  useful  polarity  in  medieval  sainfliness 
than  that  of  action  and  contemplation  would  be  one  between  the  intellectual 
and  the  anti-intellectual.  The  two  terms  are  strained  by  contemporary  abuse; 
and  they  are,  of  course,  exceedingly  imprecise.  But  they  will  do  as  well  as 
any  to  indicate  the  gap  between  a  Thomas  Aquinas  or  a  Bonaventura  on  one 
hand  and  a  Bernard  or  a  Francis  on  the  other.  There  is  a  strain  in  Christianity, 
clear  in  much  of  what  our  sources  tell  us  of  Christ  himself,  that  distrusts  the 
ratiocinative,  analytical,  organizing,  conforming,  and  also  disturbing,  but 
wrongly,  devilishly,  disturbing  intellect.  The  Christian  of  this  strain  distrusts 
the  intellect  as  the  basic  seducer,  the  serpent  in  Eden,  the  goad  to  a  flesh  that 
might  otherwise  accept  peace.  This  strain  is  clear  in  medieval  Christianity, 
clearest  of  all  in  the  greatest  of  its  saints,  Francis  of  Assisi. 

The  most  striking,  and  to  some  no  doubt  most  painful,  of  the  contradic- 
tions of  sainfliness  lies  in  the  fact  the  living  saint  is  almost  always  a  dis- 
turber, who  disturbs  the  comfortable,  well-behaved,  in  our  ordinary  sense  of 
words  by  no  means  wicked  or  perverse,  conformist;  and  the  dead  saint,  duly 
canonized,  is  taken  up  into  the  very  order  of  imperfection  his  life  had  pro- 
tested against.  You  may  soften  the  contradiction,  if  your  temperament  permits 
you  to  do  so,  by  insisting  that  the  saint's  own  real  life  is  such  that  even  his  least 
worthy  worshiper  cannot  be  wholly  untouched  by  this  holiness,  this  leaven. 
But  I  do  not  thinV  you  can  challenge  the  fact  that  the  living  saint  is  no  merely 
conventionally  good  man,  no  humanitarian  reformer,  no  "liberal"  complainer, 
not  even  a  good  practicing  Christian,  but  a  man  who  will  not  have  this  world 
at  all  at  the  price  most  of  us  pay  for  our  share  of  it. 


The  note  of  distrust  of  the  conclusions  arrived  at  by  the  established,  conform- 
ing mind  is  also  clear  in  the  less  heroic  field  of  ordinary  medieval  ethics.  In 
this  age  of  extremes  one  would  expect  to  find  examples  of  return  to  primitive 
simplicities,  dislike  of  the  learned,  dislike  of  those  in  power,  dislike  of  wealth 
and  privilege;  and  so  one  does.  The  rebellions  and  the  heresies  from  the  tenth 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

century  on,  from  the  Pataria  through  the  Waldensians  and  the  Albigensians 
to  the  revolting  peasants  of  the  later  Middle  Ages,  within  the  church  itself 
in  the  waves  of  reform  from  Cluny  to  the  coming  of  the  friars — all  these  lively 
conflicts  are  reflected  in  the  political  and  ethical  theory  of  the  time.  The  range 
of  this  writing  is  great,  and  some  of  it  sounds  like  a  muted  version  of  the  great 
religious  repudiation  of  this  pharisaical  world  we  have  heard  before. 

But  one  may  risk  a  generalization  for  the  High  Middle  Ages:  the  normal 
ethical  tone  is  not  set  by  the  rebel,  but  by  the  conformist;  it  is  not  an  ethics 
that  appeals  to  the  heart  against  the  head,  but  quite  the  opposite,  a  very 
rationalist  ethics;  it  is  not  heaven-storming,  but  moderately  and  modestly 
worldly;  it  is,  substantially,  the  ethics  expounded  for  the  learned  by  Thomas 
Aquinas,  and  brought  to  the  many  from  countless  pulpits  and  confessionals 
and  even  in  the  sculptures  and  stained  glass  of  the  churches,  and  to  a  degree 
in  the  written  word,  for  the  High  Middle  Ages  were  not  by  any  means  wholly 
illiterate  outside  the  clergy. 

We  can  here  touch  but  very  generally  on  this  standard  medieval  Christian 
ethics.  But  first  of  all  we  must  note  that  it  is  an  ethics  centered  on  a  Christian 
cosmology  and  theology  as  yet  untouched  by  natural  science,  still  strong  in 
its  literal  theism.  God  was  so  real  to  the  medieval  man  that,  if  the  word  could 
be  stripped  of  its  many  unfavorable  connotations,  one  would  have  to  say  that 
his  was  an  anthropomorphic  God.  Here,  for  instance,  is  Aquinas  himself: 

If  we  compare  murder  and  blasphemy  as  regards  the  objects  of  those  sins,  it  is 
clear  that  blasphemy,  which  is  a  sin  committed  directly  against  God,  is  more 
grave  than  murder,  which  is  a  sin  against  one's  neighbour.  On  the  other  hand,  if 
we  compare  them  in  respect  of  the  harm  wrought  by  them,  murder  is  the  graver 
sin,  for  murder  does  more  harm  to  one's  neighbour,  than  blasphemy  does  to  God. 
Since,  however,  the  gravity  of  a  sin  depends  on  the  intention  of  the  evil  will, 
rather  than  on  the  effect  of  the  deed,  as  was  shown  above  (I.-IL,  Q.  LXXIIL, 
A.8),  it  follows  that,  as  the  blasphemer  intends  to  do  harm  to  God's  honour, 
absolutely  speaking,  he  sins  more  grievously  than  the  murderer.  Nevertheless 
murder  takes  precedence,  as  to  punishment,  among  sins  committed  against  our 

This  sounds  strange,  for  our  own  rationalism  would  put  God  far  above  so 
human  a  concern  as  honor.21 

But  do  not  be  put  off  by  such  instances.  If  you  turn  to  Aquinas  on  private 

21  St  Thomas  Aquinas,  Summa  Theologica,  II.2.13.3. 1  quote  this  largely  for  the  sake  of 
the  thoroughly  medieval  phrase  "God's  honour,"  but  the  whole  passage  is  a  fine  example 
of  Aquinas  at  his  most  Whiggish.  You  do  on  this  earth  have  to  crack  down  harder  on 
murder  than  on  blasphemy. 


The  Middle  Ages 

property,  he  will  surely  not  sound  at  all  strange.  Private  property,  he  finds,  is 
not  originally  an  institution  of  natural  law,  but  has  been  added  to  natural  law 
by  human  reason  working  on  the  materials  given  by  long  experience  of  human 
society.  It  is  justified  by  its  utility;  a  person  will  take  care  of  his  own  in  a  way 
he  will  not  take  care  of  things  not  his  own — this  is  just  a  fact.  Such  ownership 
is  subject  of  course  to  Christian  duties  of  charity;  private  property  must  be 
in  part  shared  property.22  And  so  throughout,  Aquinas  is  always  sweetly 
reasonable,  always  willing  to  compromise  where  compromise  seems  to  him 
required  by  nature  and  human  nature,  never,  strangely  enough  in  a  medieval 
man,  advocating  the  excessive  gesture  of  rebellion — or  of  defiant  Tory  con- 
formity to  an  idealized  past. 

There  are  certain  major  assumptions  of  this  medieval  ethical  orthodoxy. 
There  is,  as  in  all  orthodoxies,  a  clear  line  between  right  and  wrong,  an 
authority  that  draws  that  line.  In  matters  of  faith  the  church  is  that  authority. 
We  know,  for  instance,  that  the  doctrine  of  the  Trinity  is  true,  that  we  must 
believe  it,  because  faith  is  above  questioning.  But  in  the  immense  majority 
of  problems  this  life  presents  us  with,  we  must  judge  in  accordance  with  our 
reason,  which  is  guided  by  natural  law.  Men  do,  however,  most  obviously 
differ  in  their  use  of  reason  to  find  the  right  decision  in  concrete  cases.  Is  there 
not  still  a  problem  of  authority?  Who  rightly  interprets  natural  law? 

Modern  students  of  the  Middle  Ages  have  answered  this — to  us,  certainly 
— key  question  variously.  The  hostile  anticlerical  from  the  Enlightenment  on 
has  tended  to  believe  that  the  whole  fabric  of  medieval  philosophical  devotion 
to  natural  law  was  no  more  than  a  device  to  fool  the  many,  to  consecrate 
what  to  them  was  the  real  ethical  principle  of  the  Middle  Ages,  that  what  the 
church  says  is  right.  We  need  not  take  so  partisan  a  position  to  admit  that  in 
accordance  with  the  ethical  conservatism  of  the  time,  there  was  in  fact  a  great 
reliance  on  established  practice,  on  what  had  been  done  time  out  of  mind,  on 
consensus  and  common  agreement,  on  what  most  men  would  have  thought  to 
be  "natural."  All  this  is  something  very  different  from  the  arbitrariness  and 
unreason  that  the  Enlightenment,  and  the  Renaissance  before  it,  loved  to 
attribute  to  the  Middle  Ages. 

What  the  Middle  Ages  called  a  "just  price,"  for  instance,  was  not  an 
arbitrary  one  in  the  sense  that  it  was  dictated  by  the  will  of  any  individual 
or  even  of  any  small  group.  The  just  price  was  in  theory  that  price  which 
enabled  the  worker  to  live  at  his  accustomed  standard  of  living  while  he  was 

22  Summa  Theologica,  Hii.66. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

working  on  the  goods  so  priced,  and  make  his  customary  profit.  In  practice 
it  was  no  doubt  the  price  that  had  prevailed  in  the  trade  in  that  particular 
market,  a  price  always  threatened  by  the  endemic  inflationary  tendencies  of 
the  growing  medieval  economy,  a  price  always  defended  as  the  "natural" 
price.  Adam  Smith's  price,  set  in  theory  by  the  naked  play  of  supply  and 
demand  at  a  given  moment,  would  have  seemed  to  the  medieval  man  to  be 
an  arbitrary  and  unjust  price,  one  that  might  be  too  low  to  guarantee  to  the 
laborer  the  fruits  of  his  labor. 

The  medieval  man  never  thought  of  this  order  of  nature  as  arbitrary — 
at  least  not  in  our  sense3  which  implies  an  unjust  and  preventable  arbitrariness. 
He  knew  God  could  change  everything  root  and  branch,  but  he  did  not  really 
expect  God  to  do  so.  On  the  whole,  medieval  man  was  no  chiliast,  and  he  did 
not  think  God  would  intervene  in  any  upsetting  way  with  the  order  of  nature. 
(God  did,  of  course,  constantly  intervene  in  specific  normal  ways,  guided 
nature,  so  to  speak,  which  is  why  prayer,  reasonable  prayer,  duly  accompanied 
by  works,  is  effective.)  The  world  as  it  now  stood  was  far  from  perfect,  but 
neither  was  it  unworthy  of  God  and  man.  It  had  gone  on  a  long  time,  and  we 
knew  a  good  deal  about  how  to  get  along  in  it. 

In  fact,  the  medieval  was  an  Age  of  Faith  in  a  somewhat  different  sense 
from  the  theological  one  we  usually  give  the  familiar  formula.  This  was  the 
last  time  in  the  West  when  most  men  believed  in  a  quite  literal  sense  in  what 
we  call  the  status  quo;  or,  put  negatively,  and  perhaps  to  us  more  clearly, 
these  men  did  not  believe  it  possible  by  planning,  inventing,  research,  to  alter 
in  any  important  way  the  sum  total  of  existing  "arrangements,"  culture,  institu- 
tions, ways  of  getting  things  done.  Piecemeal,  local  change,  yes;  but  even  then 
the  medieval  mind,  as  in  the  familiar  process  of  development  of  statutory  law, 
liked  to  think  of  this  as  a  finding,  even  a  rediscovery,  not  a  making,  of  a  law 
already  there,  somewhere,  where  the  over-all  plan  exists,  at  bottom,  of  course, 
in  the  mind  of  God.  All  this  is  even  better  illustrated  by  the  almost  universally 
accepted  metaphor  of  society  as  an  organism  in  which  each  individual,  or, 
better,  each  group,  had  its  appointed  place  and  function.  The  rulers,  lay  and 
clerical,  are  the  soul,  the  mind;  the  soldiers  are  the  heart;  the  workers  are 
the  belly,  and  so  on.  This  is  one  of  the  oldest  of  Western  political  metaphors. 
That  the  belly  is  as  necessary  as  the  head  is  crystal  clear,  but  it  is  also  clear 
that  the  belly  has  not  the  same  adornments  as  the  head,  the  same  position  as 
the  head.  The  lesson  is  obedience,  acceptance  of  one's  earthly  lot,  acceptance 
of  the  order  of  rank  of  society. 

Yet  the  record  of  the  Middle  Ages  is  by  no  means  one  of  general  obe- 


The  Middle  Ages 

dience  and  conformity,  and  certainly  not  one  of  unchanging  ways.  We  now 
know  well  that  from  the  eleventh  century  on  the  medieval  economy  was  a 
dynamic  one,  that  all  the  material  indexes  start  on  upward,  that  not  even 
the  Black  Death  really  stopped  them;  and,  of  course,  we  know  that  in  fact 
civil  disorders,  risings  of  the  underdog,  the  discontented,  were  common.  It 
is  true  that  there  is  by  no  means  general  agreement  among  our  medieval 
specialists  as  to  the  socio-economic  history  of  the  late  Middle  Ages,  especially 
of  the  fourteenth  and  fifteenth  centuries.23  But  in  the  balance  it  is  clear  that 
there  were  important  and  disturbing  changes,  some  of  them  making  in  the 
long  run  at  least  for  economic  progress,  and  most  unsettling  to  those  of  steady 
ways,  to  ordinary  medieval  men,  no  matter  what  their  social  class.  This  is  the 
familiar  paradox  once  more,  the  gap,  greater  in  the  Middle  Ages  than  is  usual 
even  in  the  West  between  the  ideal  and  the  real,  the  profession  and  the 
practice.  But  the  paradox  itself  here  needs  a  bit  of  explanation. 

First,  and  this  is  particularly  true  of  earlier  rebellions,  there  is  the  revo- 
lutionary ingredient  in  Christianity.  I  have  tried  to  make  clear  that  primitive 
Christianity  was  not  originally  a  "social  gospel"  of  the  full  dinner  pail  and 
comfort  for  all.  But  the  New  Testament  does  have  eloquent  passages  against 
the  rich,  the  powerful,  the  successful.  It  is  easy  enough  to  turn  much  of 
Christianity  from  mere  repudiation  of  this  world  to  its  alteration,  alteration 
in  something  like  the  sense  that  the  phrase  "social  revolution"  carries  for  us 
today.  Moreover,  even  when,  through  triumph  of  church  organization,  con- 
solidation of  dogma,  assimilation  to  the  world  of  war  and  politics,  Christianity 
had  become  a  prop  of  the  established  order,  there  remained  in  its  cultural 
tradition  an  irreducible  minimum  of  ethical  idealism,  a  feeling  that  cruelty, 
pride,  injustice  are  not  necessarily  in  the  order  of  nature.  There  was  no  reason 
why  Zeus  or  Jupiter  should  be  sorry  for  slaves;  there  was  every  reason  why 
Jesus  Christ  should  refuse  to  back  up  a  wicked  baron  or  a  corrupt  bishop. 
There  is,  as  Nietzsche  saw,  almost  as  much  moral  dynamite  in  Christianity 
as  in  socialism. 

Second,  in  no  mere  perfunctory  bow  to  the  Marxist  interpretation  of 
history,  we  may  note  that  the  very  success  of  the  medieval  synthesis  in 
enabling  men  to  live  and  work  together  in  comparative  peace  and  good  order 
contributed  to  the  overthrow  of  medieval  ethical  conservatism.  It  is  the  full, 
or  at  least  partly  full,  belly  that  revolts  against  the  ignoble,  if  essential,  role 
the  head  and  the  heart  have  combined  to  give  it.  Or  to  put  the  matter  less 

23  On  this  see  the  Cambridge  Economic  History,  Vol.  H,  ed.  Postan  and  Habbakuk, 
Cambridge,  England,  1952. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

metaphorically,  a  reasonably  widely  accepted  feeling  that  a  given  society  is 
in  fact  a  just  one,  a  society  in  which  co-operation  and  integration  are  normal, 
expected,  and  conflict  abnormal,  or  not  really  there,  simply  cannot  last  in  a 
complex  dynamic  society  such  as  Western  Europe  had  already  begun  to  be 
by  the  High  Middle  Ages.  The  fact  of  change  cannot  be  forever  concealed, 
even  by  legal  fictions;  and  change  means  conflict  in  this  real  world,  if  not  in  the 
world  of  ethical,  or  of  economic,  theory.  When  the  feudal  baron  and  his  lady 
really  were  the  heads  of  a  kind  of  expanded  Great  Family  on  the  almost  self- 
sufficent  manor,  patriarchal  theories,  metaphors  of  shepherd  and  flock,  and  a 
lot  more  pleasant  notions  would  do  very  well;  when  the  baron  and  his  lady 
had  become  absentee  landlords,  when  the  steward  had  become  in  fact  an 
entrepreneur  in  the  production  of  wool,  and  the  serfs  had  become  free 
peasants  with  money  incomes  they  could  hope  to  increase,  when,  in  short,  the 
Great  Family  had  broken  up,  it  was  not  possible  to  go  on  forever  insisting 
that  the  father  was  still  a  patriarch.  The  medieval  ethical  synthesis,  attractive 
though  it  was,  and  still  is,  to  the  wistful  who  want  the  lion  to  lie  down  with 
the  lamb,  could  not  last. 


To  discuss  the  actual  conduct  of  medieval  men  and  women  we  do  well  to  take 
their  own  picture  of  society  with  its  first,  second,  and  third  estates.  Inevitably, 
we  know  more  about  the  leaders  in  each  group  and  more  about  the  ordinary 
members  of  the  clergy  and  the  nobility  than  about  the  common  folk.  We  by  no 
means  know  enough  in  terms  of  statistics  and  the  like  to  be  at  all  confident 
about  our  generalizations.  But  we  can  hazard  something. 

The  record  of  the  clergy  is  extraordinarily  varied  and  uneven,  exceedingly 
difficult  to  summarize  in  a  short  chapter  like  this.  I  trust  the  reader  will  for- 
give me  if  I  make  the  dull  and  Whiggish  remark  that  the  record  seems  to  me 
by  no  means  as  bad  as  most  freethinking  and  Protestant  historians  have  made 
it  out  to  be,  nor  quite  as  good  as  some  Catholic  admirers  of  all  things  medieval 
feel  that  it  has  to  be.  Take  at  random  concrete  cases.  As  an  individual  bad 
example,  Gregory  of  Tours  has  an  abundance;  perhaps  the  Abbot  Pagulf  will 
do.  Pagulf,  after  trying  in  vain  to  get  rid  of,  indeed  to  murder,  the  husband 
of  a  woman  he  coveted,  slipped  into  the  house  one  night  in  the  husband's 
absence,  and  got  what  he  wanted.  The  injured  husband  took  a  brutal  revenge, 
burning  up  house,  abbot,  and  wife,  but  the  right  did  not  always  triumph  so 
clearly  in  those  rough  days.24  As  a  group  example,  almost  any  of  the  chapter 
24  Gregory  of  Tours,  History  of  the  Franks,  VIE,  19. 


The  Middle  Ages 

visitations  collected  and  translated  by  Coulton  will  do.  Here  is  one  for  Rouen 
cathedral  in  1248. 

We  visited  the  Chapter  of  Rouen,  and  found  that  they  talk  in  choir  contrary  to 
rule.  The  clergy  wander  about  the  church  and  talk  in  the  church  with  women,  dur- 
ing the  celebration  of  divine  service.  The  statute  regarding  the  entrance  [of  lay 
folk]  into  the  choir  is  not  kept.  The  psalms  are  run  through  too  rapidly,  without 
due  pauses.  The  statute  concerning  going  out  at  the  Office  of  the  Dead  is  not  kept. 
In  begging  leave  to  go  forth,  they  give  no  reason  for  so  going.  Moreover,  the 
clergy  leave  the  choir  without  reason,  before  the  end  of  the  service  already  begun; 
and,  to  be  brief,  many  other  of  the  statutes  written  on  the  board  in  the  vestry  are 
not  kept.  The  chapter  revenues  are  mismanaged  [male  tractantur]. 

With  regard  to  the  clergy  themselves,  we  found  that  Master  Michael  de  Bercy 
is  ill-famed  of  incontinence;  item,  Sir  Benedict,  of  incontinence;  item,  Master 
William  de  Calemonville  of  incontinence,  theft,  and  manslaughter;  item,  Master 
John  de  St.  L6,  of  incontinence.  Item,  Master  Alan,  of  tavern-haunting,  drunken- 
ness, and  dicing.  Item,  Peter  de  Auleige,  of  trading.  Master  John  Bordez  is  ill- 
famed  of  trading;  and  it  is  said  that  he  giveth  out  his  money  to  merchants,  to 
share  in  their  gain.  [19  March  1248]25 

It  is,  however,  easy  enough  to  balance  these  instances  of  vice  with  in- 
stances of  virtue.  In  Gregory's  own  day  many  a  missionary  to  the  heathen 
north  and  east  gave  the  example  of  devoted  Christian  zeal.  The  accounts  of 
the  lives  of  saints  are  often,  in  our  eyes,  naive  and  historically  unreliable, 
but  the  residue  of  saintliness  is  there,  not  to  be  denied.  Even  the  freethinkers, 
though  they  recoil  in  horror  from  the  earliest  Eastern  hermit  monks,  have 
good  things  to  say  about  Western  monasticism  in  the  first  years  of  the  Bene- 
dictine rule.  These  monks  did  live  arduous  lives  of  real  labor  on  the  land,  in 
the  library,  in  the  missionary  field.  Nor  can  even  the  hostile  observer  question 
the  reality  of  the  successive  waves  of  renewal  that  restored  the  discipline  and 
the  ardor  of  Western  monasticism  through  these  centuries.  Whenever  monastic 
life  seemed  to  have  gone  the  way  of  all  flesh,  when  monks  had  become  well- 
fed,  lazy,  lustful,  worldly,  there  was  certain  to  be  a  reform,  a  renewal,  a  new 
order  or  a  reformed  old  order,  right  on  down  to  the  Reformation. 

Even  Coulton,  an  admirably  trained  professional  historian  who  somehow 
failed  to  fall  in  love  with  his  subject,  and  who  managed  to  collect  a  whole 
series  of  damaging  pieces,  nonetheless  occasionally  brings  in  a  favorable  one, 
even,  at  times,  an  instance  that  has  a  touch  of  humor.  Here  is  one  from  the 
thirteenth-century  Franciscan  preacher  Berthold  of  Ratisbon: 

25  Coulton,  Life  in  the  Middle  Ages,  Vol.  I,  pp.  95-96. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

When  I  was  in  Brussels,  the  great  city  of  Brabant,  there  came  to  me  a  maiden  of 
lowly  birth  but  comely,  who  besought  me  with  many  tears  to  have  mercy  upon 
her.  When  therefore  I  had  bidden  her  tell  me  what  ailed  her,  then  she  cried  out 
amidst  her  sobs:  "Alas,  wretched  girl  that  I  am!  for  a  certain  priest  would  fain 
have  ravished  me  by  force,  and  began  to  kiss  me  against  my  will;  wherefore  I 
smote  him  in  the  face  with  the  back  of  my  hand,  so  that  his  nose  bled;  and  for 
this  as  the  clergy  now  tell  me,  I  must  needs  go  to  Rome."  Then  I,  scarce  with- 
holding my  laughter,  yet  speaking  as  in  all  seriousness,  affrighted  her  as  though 
she  had  committed  a  grievous  sin;  and  at  length,  having  made  her  swear  that  she 
would  fulfill  my  bidding,  I  said,  "I  command  thee,  hi  virtue  of  thy  solemn  oath, 
that  if  this  priest  or  any  other  shall  attempt  to  do  thee  violence  with  kisses  or  em- 
braces, then  thou  shalt  smite  him  sore  with  thy  clenched  fist,  even  to  the  striking 
out,  if  possible,  of  his  eye;  and  in  this  matter  thou  shalt  spare  no  order  of  men,  for 
it  is  as  lawful  for  thee  to  strike  in  defence  of  thy  chastity  as  to  fight  for  thy  life." 
With  which  words  I  moved  all  that  stood  by,  and  the  maiden  herself,  to  vehement 
laughter  and  gladness.26 

We  may  risk  a  general  summary.  There  is,  especially  for  the  higher  clergy, 
the  bishops  and  the  abbots,  a  long  and  deep  trough  in  the  Dark  Ages,  the 
years  of  the  fighting  prelates,  fighting  with  their  battle-axes  alongside  then: 
lay  cousins,  years  when  the  higher  clergy  were  assimilated  almost  wholly  to 
the  political  ruling  classes,  years  no  doubt  of  maximum  sexual  license  for  the 
higher  clergy.  They  are  the  years  when,  for  the  lower  clergy,  sheer  ignorance 
and  the  example  of  their  betters  kept  them  also  in  a  trough.  Clerical  concubi- 
nage was  very  nearly  transformed,  for  the  lower  clergy  at  least,  into  legitimate 
marriage.  Then  in  the  tenth  and  eleventh  centuries  there  came  one  of  the  most 
remarkable  waves  of  reform,  of  moral  renewal,  in  the  Western  record,  a  wave 
comparable  in  depth  and  force,  though  in  many  ways  very  different  from,  the 
reforms  that  followed  on  the  eighteenth-century  Enlightenment.  This  medieval 
reform,  centering  in  the  tenth-century  reformed  Benedictine  foundation  at 
Quay,  seems  clearly  to  have  been  a  reform  initiated  and  carried  through  as  a 
reform,  not  a  revolution,  by  a  self-conscious  and  mainly  clerical  minority 
which  by  the  eleventh  century  had  captured  the  papacy.  But  this  was  also  a 
reform  movement  that  had  to  win  over,  if  not  the  millions  of  serfs  and 
peasants,  at  least  the  many  thousands  of  the  ruling  classes.  Our  sources  are 
certainly  inadequate  for  a  study  of  what  we  may  nonetheless  call  "public 
opinion"  in  the  eleventh  century.  But  we  can  be  sure  that  the  Cluniac  move- 
ment was  one  of  the  first  in  a  long  line  of  modern  Western  efforts  to  achieve 
through  propaganda,  pressure  groups,  electioneering — intrigue,  if  you  like — 
the  kind  of  social  change  we  may  unblushingly  call  "voluntary." 

26  Coulton,  op.  cit.,  Vol.  I,  p.  125,  quoting  Berthold  of  Ratisbon,  Lib.  H,  Chap,  xxx,  p. 


The  Middle  Ages 

It  was  a  successful  reform.  It  did  not  achieve  anything  like  what  its  most 
dent  proponents — for  example,  the  monk  Hildebrand,  as  pope,  Gregory 
II — may  well  have  wanted.  Some  of  the  Cluniacs  wanted  a  European  society 
tied  by  the  Church  of  Rome,  a  true  theocracy;  and  though  there  have  been 
iefly  and  locally  pretty  complete  theocracies  in  the  West — Geneva,  Boston, 
iraguay — the  whole  temper  of  Western  life  has  been  against  such  rule. 
>urred  by  the  partial  success  of  the  reform,  the  later  medieval  popes  went  on 
assert  claims  to  supremacy  on  earth,  but  by  1300  they  had  clearly  failed. 
re  may  guess  that  some  of  the  reformers  hoped  to  transform  men  and  women 
ght  here  on  earth  into  what  Christian  ethics  wanted  them  to  be,  but  we  can- 
)t  be  sure  of  this,  as  we  can  for  many  later  secular  reformers. 

What  the  Cluniac  reformers  did  achieve  was  a  good  deal.  They  established 
srical  celibacy  as  the  law  of  the  church,  a  law  certainly  violated  again  and 
jain,  but  always,  since,  not  only  a  sin  but  a  scandal.  They  helped  along  the 
•ocess  of  disentangling  the  clergy  from  the  full  play  of  the  complex  feudal 
stem,  though  they  by  no  means  succeeded  in  making  complete  separation  of 
erical  and  feudal  persons.  They  helped  initiate,  in  the  Peace  of  God  and  the 
ruce  of  God,  some  social  control  of  the  private  warfare  among  the  second 
tate,  and  thus,  in  a  very  real  sense,  helped  found  the  modern  state.  Against 
e  sin  of  simony  they  were  at  least  as  successful  as  against  the  sin  of  clerical 
continence;  simony  was  never  again  as  open,  nor  as  common,  save  in  the 
orst  days  of  the  Renaissance  popes,  and  then  largely  in  Italy  alone  and  at 
e  top  of  the  hierarchy.  In  short,  the  Cluniac  movement  raised,  if  only  what 
our  day  we  might  think  of  as  "a  few  percentage  points,"  the  standards  not 
dy  of  clerical,  but  of  lay  conduct.  It  did  not  make  over  human  nature,  but 
did  make  certain  extreme  forms  of  misconduct  unfashionable. 

There  was,  however,  a  lapse.  By  the  early  sixteenth  century  the  clergy  over 
ost  of  Europe  had  once  more  fallen  into  a  trough.  The  prelate  with  the 
itfle-ax  was  gone  forever,  and  so,  too,  in  its  pristine  form,  was  the  feudal 
)bility.  The  temptations  that  beset  the  higher  clergy  in  the  late  Middle  Ages 
sre  perhaps  simpler  than  those  of  the  ninth  century;  they  were  chiefly 
captations  of  the  flesh  in  a  society,  judged  by  previous  standards,  with  a 
nsiderable  margin  of  wealth  for  conspicuous  consumption  among  the  pos- 
ssing  few,  a  society  of  fashionable  sophistication,  indeed,  as  Huizinga's 
asterpiece  Waning  of  the  Middle  Ages  has  made  clear  to  us  all,  a  society 
'  self-conscious  preoccupation  with  all  sorts  of  things  one  need  not  be  a 
>rokin  or  a  Toynbee  to  recognize  as  signs  of  cultural  decadence.  Here  is  a 
>od  sample: 

the  fifteenth  century  people  used  to  keep  statuettes  of  the  Virgin,  of  which  the 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

body  opened  and  showed  the  Trinity  within.  The  inventory  of  the  treasure  of  the 
dukes  of  Burgundy  makes  mention  of  one  made  of  gold  inlaid  with  gems.  Gerson 
saw  one  in  the  Carmelite  monastery  at  Paris;  he  blames  the  brethren  for  it,  not, 
however,  because  such  a  coarse  picture  of  the  miracle  shocked  him  as  irreverent, 
but  because  of  the  heresy  of  representing  the  Trinity  as  the  fruit  of  Mary.2T 

Here,  surely,  in  this  almost  Hegelian  world  of  ours  in  which  an  excess  seems 
to  breed  its  opposite,  is  one  of  the  reasons  for  Reformation  puritanism. 

I  have  perhaps  said  enough  about  the  second  estate  under  the  heading  of 
the  moral  ideal  of  the  medieval  knight.  I  have  there  hardly  overstated  the 
extent  to  which  in  its  earlier  days  this  class  was  a  professional  fighting  class, 
the  most  undisciplined  in  Western  history,  and  at  least  as  unintellectual,  or 
anti-intellectual,  as  the  Spartiates.  Here  is  Bertram  de  Born,  an  average 
knight,  complaining  about  the  clerically  sponsored  Truce  of  God,  which 
sought  to  stop  private  feudal  warfare  between  Wednesday  evening  and  Mon- 
day morning,  and  on  holy  days: 

Peace  does  not  suit  me;  war  alone  pleases  me.  I  am  not  at  all  concerned  over 
Mondays  or  Tuesdays.  Weeks,  months,  years — all  that  is  to  me  a  matter  of  in- 
difference. At  all  times,  I  want  to  destroy  [perdre]  anyone  who  does  me  harm.28 

These  early  and  deadly  private  wars  were  modified  into  the  jousting  tourney 
and  the  duel,  both  a  bit  less  murderous;  still,  over  the  later  centuries  there 
can  be  no  doubt  that  the  class,  in  part  deprived  of  its  roots  in  the  soil  and 
its  local  governing  functions,  committed  suicide  hi  wars  such  as  the  English 
Wars  of  the  Roses.  It  and  its  successors — who  were  not  actually  in  very  large 
part  its  descendants — the  European  aristocracies  of  early  modern  times,  never 
wholly  lost  an  anti-intellectualist  stamp,  in  part  imprinted  by  a  genuine  rivalry 
for  power  with  the  clergy,  the  intellectual  class.  As  late  as  the  sixteenth 
century,  we  find  English  gentlemen  protesting  vigorously  against  the  new 
fashionable  education  at  Oxford,  Cambridge,  and  the  public  schools,  where 
their  sons  were  actually  studying  Greek  and  Lathi  like  any  narrow-chested, 
nearsighted  clerk,  instead  of  whacking  away  at  each  other  on  the  exercise 

The  second  estate  had,  it  must  be  admitted,  some  of  the  virtues  the 
romanticist  cherishes  in  the  knights  of  old.  They  were  not,  as  ruling  classes 
go,  addicted  to  the  corruptions  of  the  rich,  perhaps  in  part  because  they  were 

27  Huizinga,  Waning  of  the  Middle  Ages,  p.  140. 

28  Bertram  de  Born,  cited  in  Villemain,  Cours  de  Litt6rature  Fran9aise.  Tableau  de  la 
Litterature  du  Moyen  Age,  Paris,  Didier,  Libraire-Editeur,  1850,  Vol.  I,  p.  103.  My 

2»  Fritz  Caspari,  Humanism  and  the  Social  Order  in  Tudor  England,  Chicago,  Univer- 
sity of  Chicago  Press,  1954,  pp.  136ff. 


The  Middle  Ages 

never  for  the  most  part  exceedingly  rich.  All  Europe  was  poor  in  the  earlier 
medieval  centuries,  and  as  Europe  grew  rich  it  was  not  the  knights,  but  the 
new  merchant  and  capitalist  classes,  and  their  helpers  in  the  new  model 
monarchic  state,  who  got  most  of  the  spoils.  The  knight  was,  as  a  businessman, 
inhibited  by  the  rules  and  standards  of  his  order,  and  by  an  upbringing  that 
stifled  any  inventiveness  he  may  have  been  born  with.  The  class  was  sexually 
promiscuous  enough,  for  this  was  a  sexually  promiscuous  time,  but  it  was 
comparatively  free  from  the  not  unusual  addiction  of  a  military  class  to 
homosexuality — a  practice,  moreover,  very  vigorously  condemned  in  Chris- 
tian ethics.  Many  of  its  members  were  later  sidetracked  into  the  wastes  of 
courtly  love.  Even  its  sense  of  honor  was  not  quite  what  the  nineteenth- 
century  admirers  thought  it  was.  Like  all  sporting  classes,  it  was  taught  respect 
for  the  rules  of  the  game,  but  it  was  also  taught  by  life  to  want  very  much  to 
win.  One  feels  it  to  have  been  closer  to  current  American  sporting  ethics  than 
to  that,  say,  of  the  British  Victorian  upper  classes,  who  really  almost  did, 
sometimes  quite  did,  put  virtue  above  winning. 

Toward  their  inferiors  the  second  estate  were  by  no  means  the  insufferable 
tyrants  later  democratic  propaganda,  mostly  stemming  from  the  French 
revolutionists,  made  them  out  to  have  been.  They  were  certainly  not  human- 
itarians or  egalitarians;  they  were  full  of  pride  of  rank,  and  contemptuous  of 
commoners,  especially  of  successfully  wealthy  commoners.  But — and  this 
needs  to  be  hammered  home  to  Americans — they  were  constrained  by  habit, 
by  unthinking  respect  for  custom,  by  lack  of  enterprise,  if  by  nothing  else, 
from  what  the  Marxist  means  by  "exploitation"  of  the  lower  classes.  By  the 
High  Middle  Ages,  chattel  slavery  had  almost  vanished  from  Western  Europe; 
commoners,  including  many  of  the  peasants  who  formed  the  bulk  of  the 
third  estate,  had  the  juridical  status  of  freemen,  and  they  were  protected  by 
what  is  one  of  the  firmest  marks  of  the  medieval  mentality,  respect  for  status, 
for  the  established  order.  All  this  is  less  than  Lord  and  Lady  Bountiful — 
though  such  existed;  but  it  is  a  great  deal  more  than  the  wicked  seigneur, 
fattening  on  the  blood  of  his  serfs,  enjoying  his  right  of  first  night  with  their 

I  do  not  wish  to  exaggerate  in  my  effort  to  redress  the  balance  upset  by 

30  Such  did  not  exist,  certainly  not  in  law,  as  modern  research  has  made  clear.  The  jus 
primae  noctis  is  probably  the  invention  of  some  French  eighteenth-century  political 
propagandist  of  talents  worthy  of  Madison  Avenue.  In  real  Western  life,  the  men  of  a 
privileged  class  are  rarely  as  enterprising  in  rape  or  seduction  of  women  of  classes  in- 
ferior to  them  as  our  modern  class-warfare-conscious  tradition  makes  them  out  to  have 
been,  if  only  because  the  women  of  their  own  class  are  usually  too  exacting  of  their 
energies.  I  trust  this  remark  is  not  a  mere  obiter  dictum  inspired  by  the  spirit  of  our 
own  age. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

our  eighteenth-century  democratic  belief  that  an  aristocracy  of  privilege  is 
not  only  wicked  but  abnormal.  Clearly  there  were  oppressive  landlords  in  the 
Middle  Ages,  as  there  were  rebellious  peasants,  disputatious  peasants, 
peasants  addicted  to  moving  boundary  stones  on  the  sly.  Certainly  the  rosy 
picture  of  medieval  society  painted  by  the  great  literary  rebels  against  nine- 
teenth-century industrialism,  a  Carlyle,  a  William  Morris,  is  no  piece  of 
realism.  I  am  here  maintaining,  as  often  in  this  book,  no  more  than  the  dif- 
ference of  a  "few  percentage  points"  in  the  sum  total,  a  difference  made  by, 
a  consequence  of,  at  a  minimum  a  reflection  of,  a  widespread  world  view,  an 
expectancy  based  on  a  generally  held  interpretation  of  the  nature  of  man  and 
the  universe.  The  medieval  second  estate,  though  it  numbered  grasping,  cruel, 
above  all,  unrestrained  individuals,  displays  over  its  whole  history  at  the  very 
least  the  decencies  of  an  unprogressive  class. 

The  third  estate  in  the  Middle  Ages  was  almost  wholly  a  peasantry,  though 
by  the  end  of  the  period  there  was  a  small  but  well-developed  urban  middle 
class,  especially  in  Western  Europe.  Most  of  the  broad  generalizations  we 
shall  risk  about  the  actual  conduct  of  the  masses  are,  however,  roughly  true 
even  of  the  higher  classes.  Ordinary  folk  in  the  Middle  Ages  were  by  no  means 
puritans.  There  were  gusts  of  revivalism,  sometimes  in  unlikely  places,  in 
which  the  laymen  were  swept  up  into  forswearing  the  ways  of  the  world.  Of 
these  the  best  known  is  the  brief  Florentine  madness  under  Savonarola  at  the 
end  of  the  fifteenth  century,  but  in  these  last  centuries  there  were  many  less 
excessive  religious  excitements  throughout  the  West.  And  always  the  masses 
held  what  they  deemed  genuine  saintly  otherworldliness  in  enthusiastic 
admiration.  Still,  there  is  no  gainsaying  the  earthiness,  the  coarseness,  some- 
times the  exuberance,  of  the  common  people  of  the  Middle  Ages.  Folk  tales, 
such  as  the  French  fabliaux,  and  their  reflection  in  such  a  literary  man  as 
Chaucer,  the  details  of  many  of  the  carvings  of  medieval  churches,  the  many 
complaints  the  preachers  make  of  the  evils  of  dancing  and  feasting,  all  mount 
up  to  impressive  evidence*  But  you  can  see  this  best  in  anything  Breughel 
painted.  It  is  true  the  actual  painting  is  later  than  the  medieval  period,  but 
these  peasants  at  their  quite  unspiritual  tasks  and  pleasures  are  surely 
unchanged  from  their  medieval  predecessors. 

Bastardy  was  certainly  not  uncommon.  We  do  not  have  adequate  sta- 
tistics; it  may  well  be  that  the  ratio  of  illegitimate  to  legitimate  births  was 
in  many  parts  of  Europe  ho  greater  than  it  was  to  be  in  the  nineteenth  century. 
But  the  attitude  toward  bastardy  was  very  different  from  that  of  the  nine- 
teenth century.  The  Christian  sacrament  of  marriage,  the  whole  structure  of 


The  Middle  Ages 

family  law,  made  the  status  of  the  bastard  inferior;  but  men  found  something 
amusing  in  the  fact  that  nature  had  overcome  the  priest.  For  the  layman,  at 
least,  sexual  continence  was  hardly  an  obligation,  and  the  remedy  for  frigidity 
or  indifference  in  a  wife  was  clear  and  easy.  Again,  there  are  no  good 
statistics,  but  it  does  not  seem  that  this  far  back  there  exists  much  difference 
between  the  hot-blooded  South  and  the  cold-blooded  North.  Bastardy  was 
no  disgrace  in  the  Italy  of  Leonardo  da  Vinci,  but  neither  was  it  a  necessary 
trauma  in  the  Netherlands  of  Erasmus.  And  Erasmus  was  actually  a  priest's 

In  fact,  in  the  eternal  warfare  between  Christianity  and  the  natural  animal 
man,  Christianity  among  the  masses  in  the  Middle  Ages  had  to  settle  for  what 
must  look  to  the  Christian  ethical  idealist — who,  since  the  eighteenth  century, 
has  frequently  been  an  enlightened  freethinker — as  a  pretty  empty  victory 
of  mere  prestige.  Medieval  anticlericalism,  which  is  genuine  anticlericalism 
from  within  the  church,  not  the  anti-Christianity  that  often  goes  by  the  name 
of  anticlericalism  in  modern  Catholic  countries,  is  evident  from  the  slightest 
acquaintance  with  the  age.  The  priest  was  for  many  commoners  the  agent  of  a 
great  power  indeed,  a  God  whose  existence  they  never  doubted,  but  who 
somehow  was  not  quite  the  loving  God  of  Christian  sentiment.  To  avoid  the 
errors  of  the  traditional  rationalist  freethinker  is  this  matter  of  medieval  faith 
— those  of  a  Harry  Elmer  Barnes,  for  instance — I  shall  have  somewhat 
reluctantly  to  use  the  language  of  popular  psychology,  which  is  no  doubt  full 
of  its  own  errors:  there  is  a  deep-seated  ambivalence  in  the  sentiments  of  the 
medieval  masses  toward  all  the  priest  stands  for. 

The  facts  are  there.  I  cite  from  Coulton  once  more: 

In  certain  districts  I  have  seen  men  when  they  meet  priests  [the  first  thing  in  the 
morning]  forthwith  crossing  themselves,  saying  that  it  is  an  evil  omen  to  meet  a 
priest.  Moreover,  I  have  heard  on  sure  authority  that  in  a  certain  town  of  France 
wherein  many  of  all  conditions  died,  men  said  among  themselves,  "This  deadly 
plague  can  never  cease  unless,  before  we  lay  a  dead  man  in  his  grave,  we  shall 
first  cast  our  own  parson  into  the  same  pit!"  Whence  it  came  to  pass  that,  when 
the  priest  came  to  the  edge  of  the  grave  to  bury  a  dead  parishioner,  then  the 
countryfolk,  men  and  women  together,  seized  him,  arrayed  as  he  was  in  his 
priestly  vestments,  and  cast  him  into  the  pit.  These  are  inventions  of  the  devil  and 
demoniacal  illusions.31 

A  simple  partial  explanation  is  obvious.  The  priest  inherited  from  ages  and 
ages  of  magic  and  of  religious  belief  heavily  weighted  with  fear  of  utterly 

si  Life  in  the  Middle  Ages,  Vol.  I,  p.  35,  no.  15.  These  are  two  other  instances,  less 
extreme  and  more  amusing,  cited  on  these  same  pages. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

inhuman  forces.  The  priest  was  a  magician,  but  also  a  man,  and  as  a  man  he 
might  not  really  be  in  control  of  these  forces.  Better  cross  yourself .  .  .  . 

The  age  was  fully  as  superstitious  as  its  detractors  have  pictured  it.  Once 
more,  there  is  clearly  an  irreducible  minimum  of  superstition,  taken  in  its 
widest  sense,  throughout  Western  history.  It  can  be  argued — not  proved — 
that  one  kind  of  superstition  slips  into  the  place  of  a  discarded  superstition, 
that  the  sum  total  of  superstition  is  roughly  constant  in  our  brief  Western 
history.  But  the  range  and  variety  of  superstitions  in  the  Middle  Ages  was 
certainly  great.  The  order  of  nature  was  no  succession  of  scientifically  estab- 
lished uniformities,  but  a  colorful,  only  partly  predictable,  melodrama  mixed 
with  comedy.  Nothing  was  untouched  by  the  elaborate  network  of  associa- 
tions that  composed  the  Christian  tradition,  swollen  by  hundreds  of  local 
pagan  survivals.  A  whole  book  could  be  written  about  the  superstitions 
centering  on  Friday,  that  dark  day  of  Christ's  suffering  which  was  yet  the 
bright  day  of  our  redemption.  It  would  take  volumes  to  record  what  happened 
to  the  relics  of  saints,  and  much  of  the  record  would  be  black. 

These  superstitions,  or,  if  you  prefer,  these  naive  folk  beliefs,  do  often 
show  the  freshness,  the  touching  innocence  of  the  child  on  its  good  behavior, 
the  engaging  immediacy  of  symbolism  lovers  of  the  Middle  Ages  dwell  upon. 
Here,  for  the  sake  of  fairness,  is  one  of  these: 

A  certain  lay-brother  of  Hemmenrode  was  somewhat  grievously  tempted;  where- 
fore as  he  stood  and  prayed  he  used  these  words,  "In  truth,  Lord,  if  Thou  de- 
liver me  not  from  this  temptation,  I  will  complain  of  Thee  to  Thy  Mother!"  The 
loving  Lord,  master  of  humility  and  lover  of  simplicity,  prevented  the  lay- 
brother's  complaint  and  presently  relieved  his  temptation,  as  though  He  feared  to 
be  accused  before  His  Mother's  face.  Another  lay-brother  standing  behind  the 
other's  back  smiled  to  hear  this  prayer,  and  repeated  it  for  the  edification  of  the 
rest.  Novice.  Who  would  not  be  edified  by  Christ's  so  great  humility?32 

Finally,  there  is  that  acceptance  of  violence  and  sudden  death  that  makes 
the  Middle  Ages  so  different  from  our  own.  The  alert  reader  will  here  detect 
two  contradictions,  or,  at  least,  difficulties:  one  summarized  by  Belsen,  Hiro- 
shima, and  other  contemporary  horrors,  the  other  an  apparent  contradiction 
with  my  previous  insistence  on  the  traditional,  stable,  conservative  side  of 
medieval  culture,  which  should  make  for  regular  ways,  not  violence  and  inse- 
curity. The  first  I  find  no  difficulty  at  all,  for  today  we  do  not  "accept"  the 
violence  of  total  war  as  natural  and  unavoidable,  not,  even,  as  such,  the  do- 
mestic violence  Europeans  find  so  great  in  the  United  States.  To  this  subject 

32  Coulton,  Life  in  the  Middle  Ages,  Vol.  I,  p.  65,  no.  35. 


The  Middle  Ages 

I  shall  have  to  return.  Nor  is  the  second  a  genuine  difficulty.  Violence  was  to 
the  medieval  mind  a  part  of  God's  plan,  part  of  the  expected  regularities  that 
govern  the  world.  Disease — above  all,  disease  at  its  most  catastrophic  in 
plague — as  well  as  madness,  hysteria,  violent  repression  of  heresy,  the  whole 
range  of  conventional  crime,  and,  most  important,  perhaps,  of  all  this,  and 
something  quite  unknown  to  Americans  for  generations,  the  ever-present 
threat  of  famine  in  an  economy  wholly  incapable  of  transporting  staple  food- 
stuffs very  far  or  fast — all  these  made  for  suffering,  insecurity,  violence. 

The  Middle  Ages,  then,  could  not  be  humanitarian  in  our  sense  of  organ- 
ized humanitarian  movements.  The  Christian  heritage  did  insist  on  the  obli- 
gation of  charity,  and  the  church  did  what  it  could  in  the  vast  field  of  what  we 
should  consider  necessary  social  services.  There  is  no  lack  of  the  milk  of 
human  kindness  in  the  lives  of  these  people.  Medieval  piety  is  full  of  tales  of 
Christian  sharing  with  the  unfortunate,  from  the  familiar  one  of  St.  Martin 
of  Tours,  who  slashed  his  cloak  in  two  to  warm  a  beggar  with  half  of  it,  right 
on  through  to  the  end  of  the  period.  There  is  no  question  of  hypocrisy  here. 
But  certainly  to  the  rationalist  humanitarian  of  the  eighteenth  century  and 
later  there  is  definitely  something  that  shocks  him,  something  that  seems  to 
him  wrongheaded.  This  something  is  best  put  as  the  acceptance,  the  expecta- 
tion, of  violence  and  suffering  as  part  of  nature  and  human  nature.  The  medi- 
eval mind  would  have  accepted  as  a  truism  the  favorite  reproach  of  the  later 
rationalist  humanitarian  that  Christian  charity  is  mere  alleviation  of  symp- 
toms, no  cure  of  disease.  The  man  of  the  Middle  Ages  was  sure  that  there  is 
no  cure — no  cure  here  on  earth  and  in  this  life,  though  a  certain  cure  in 
eternal  salvation. 

We  sometimes  like  to  imagine  the  admiring  amazement  with  which  we 
suppose,  somewhat  naively,  a  medieval  man  brought  to  our  world  would 
confront,  say,  an  airplane  in  flight.  Actually,  fear  might  well  be  his  first  but 
not  at  all  unusual  emotion.  And  since  he  was  quite  used  to  attributing  to  the 
Devil  at  least  as  much  ingenuity  as  we  now  attribute  to  ourselves,  he  might 
on  reflection  be  neither  puzzled  nor  surprised.  Were  he  an  educated  medieval 
man,  what  would  really  astonish  him,  confront  him  with  something  utterly 
beyond  his  comprehension,  would  be  an  exposition  of  our  belief  in  progress, 
natural  science,  heaven  on  earth  to  come.  Machines  he  could  take,  but  not 
the  beliefs  that  made  and  were  made  by  the  machines.  Happiness,  salvation, 
heaven  were  certain  enough  to  him,  but  not  in  this  life,  not  on  this  earth,  not 
even  as  remote  goals  of  earthly  progress. 

Salvation  was  a  moral  certainty  of  God's  universe,  though  no  single  indi- 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

vidual  Christian  could  be  sure  of  his  own  salvation,  not  certain  in  the  meaning 
the  word  has  for  common  sense.  We  moderns  have,  however,  so  confused  the 
common-sense  meaning  of  "certain,"  the  statistical  sense  science  gives  the 
word,  and  the  surviving  moral  sense  we  inherit  from  the  Middle  Ages,  that 
we  find  it  very  hard  to  feel  the  word  in  its  medieval  sharpness,  except  per- 
haps in  our  moments  of  reverence  for  the  wonders  of  natural  science.  Deep 
within  some  of  us,  at  least,  and  perhaps  surprisingly,  in  view  of  the  newness 
of  the  sentiment,  there  is  this  opposite  of  the  medieval  attitude:  the  feeling 
that  what  we  consider  evil  is  not  a  part  of  the  structure  of  the  universe,  that 
evil  is  not  something  we  must  struggle  against  with  no  hope  of  eradicating  it, 
but  is  something  we  can  destroy  root  and  branch.  No  medieval  man  could 
really  understand  this  point  of  view.  It  is  significant  that  when  the  kind  of 
writing  we  call  Utopias  reappears — the  Greeks,  of  course,  had  Utopias,  no- 
tably the  Republic  of  Plato — we  are  already  in  the  Renaissance.  The  Christian 
heaven  was  Utopia  enough  for  the  Age  of  Faith;  but  it  was  a  sure  possible 
haven,  not  a  "no  place" — which  is  what  Utopia  means  in  Greek. 


This  last  brings  up  a  final  problem,  one  not  to  be  avoided,  but  certainly  not 
to  be  solved  with  universal  acceptance.  The  Middle  Ages  in  the  West  was 
indeed  a  time — the  last  in  Western  history — when,  at  least  on  the  surface,  all 
men  had  the  same  religion.  To  be  more  cautious,  we  may  say  that  in  the 
Middle  Ages  all  Westerners  were  members  of  one  church,  the  Roman  Catho- 
lic. What  effect  did  this  unanimity,  this  existence  of  One  Church,  have  on  the 
conduct  of  men,  on  their  moral  attitudes? 

But  first,  was  there  unanimity?  Was  even  the  thirteenth  century  quite  the 
irenic  Age  of  Faith  its  apologists  make  it  out  to  be?  The  actual  incompleteness 
or  imperfection  of  medieval  spiritual  unity  is  not  to  be  denied.  Heresy  was 
endemic,  and  after  the  quarrel  between  Philip  the  Fair  and  Boniface  VIII  at 
the  beginning  of  the  fourteenth  century  schism  was  so  deep  and  open  that  one 
may  say  that  ecclesiastical  unity  was  never  really  restored  in  the  West.  There 
were  among  the  ruling  classes  who  leave  a  record  behind  many  hard-boiled 
political  realists  like  Peter  of  Dreux  whose  conduct  can  hardly  be  reconciled 
with  membership  in  the  church  even  by  a  most  extreme  accepter  of  the  gap 
between  word  and  deed.33  More  important,  there  is  evidence  that  laymen 

33  Yet  the  gap  was  indeed  huge  in  the  Middle  Ages,  if  only  because  the  whole  structure 
of  the  word  was  so  real  and  so  perfect  and  so  unattainable  here  on  earth.  I  should  guess 
Philip  the  Fair  thought  he  was  a  good  Christian — perhaps  not  as  good  as  his  grandfather 
had  been,  but,  still,  a  Christian. 


The  Middle  Ages 

sometimes  went  beyond  the  normal  anticlericalism  of  the  age  into  expressed 
doubts  about  articles  of  faith.  The  view  that  nobody  dared  express  his  doubts 
in  the  Middle  Ages  is  simply  not  true.  Here  is  a  thirteenth-century  Belgian 

Certain  men  of  note  in  this  world  sat  drinking  in  the  tavern;  and,  as  they  grew 
warm  with  wine,  they  began  to  talk  together  of  various  things;  and  their  talk  fell 
upon  that  which  shall  be  after  this  life.  Then  said  one,  "We  are  utterly  deceived 
by  those  clerks,  who  say  that  our  souls  outlive  the  destruction  of  the  body!** 
Hereupon  all  fell  a-laughing.  .  .  ,34 

True  enough,  the  anecdote  ends  with  the  scoffers  taught  a  lesson,  but  the 
scoffers  could  talk  freely  in  their  tavern,  and  they  did  question  the  doctrine  of 
immortality.  Finally,  in  formal  philosophy,  in  metaphysics  and  epistemology, 
the  range  of  medieval  thought  is  quite  as  complete  as  it  had  been  in  the  ancient 

Yet  the  fact  of  One  Church  and  One  Faith  remains;  and,  moreover,  for 
the  ordinary  thinking  and  feeling  man  there  was  no  real  alternative  to  the 
Christian  cosmology,  such  as  the  Renaissance  and,  more  particularly,  the 
Age  of  Reason  were  later  to  provide.  The  medieval  Tom  Paine  or  Ethan 
Allen,  or,  for  that  matter,  Thomas  Jefferson,  had  to  take  it  out  in  straight 
heresy  on  Christian  grounds.  We  must  try  to  estimate  what  difference  this 
degree  of  formal  unanimity  made  in  medieval  life. 

Two  negatives  seem  clear.  First,  the  unanimity  was  not  by  any  means  so 
complete  and  far-reaching  as  to  preclude  those  differences  of  opinion  or  atti- 
tude that  are  essential  to  change,  or,  if  you  wish,  "progress."  In  all  sorts  of 
ways,  from  technology  and  economic  organisation  to  the  fine  arts,  the  four 
centuries  after  1000  are  centuries  of  conspicuous,  though  not  by  our  standards 
rapid,  change.  Second,  in  terms  of  such  familiar  ethical  codes  as  the  Ten 
Commandments  and  the  Sermon  on  the  Mount,  it  has  to  be  said  that  there  is 
no  good  evidence  that  medieval  conduct  was  among  the  many  any  better  than 
it  had  been  in  earlier  times.  It  is  very  hard  to  disprove  the  freethinker's  favor- 
ite assertion;  the  Middle  Ages  are  not  a  period  of  lofty  standards  of  loving- 
kindness,  gentleness,  honesty,  chastity,  refinement  of  passions.  They  are  not, 
to  a  sympathetic  student,  the  centuries  of  ignorance,  cruelty,  and  filth  they 
appeared  to  later  freethinkers  to  be.  But  they  certainly  are  not  in  practice 
"Christian"  centuries;  there  have  never  yet  been  such  centuries. 

The  existence  of  this  formally  united  Christendom  does,  however,  help 
explain  a  good  deal  that  went  on  in  the  Middle  Ages.  Without  it,  the  Crusades 

34  Coulton,  Life  in  the  Middle  Ages,  Vol.  I,  p.  131. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

would  have  been  impossible;  and  the  Crusades  were  of  great  importance  in 
the  formation  of  our  modern  world.  Without  it,  the  West  might  never  have 
been  able  to  carry  into  modern  times  that  tenuous  sense  of  belonging  to  some 
society  bigger  than  the  nation-state,  which  it  has  never  quite  lost.  Above  all, 
this  feeling  that  there  is  One  Faith  had  as  a  logical,  indeed  inevitable,  conse- 
quence certain  medieval  habits  of  mind  hard  for  doctrinaire  modern  liberals 
to  understand — though  they  ought  to  try  to  understand  these  medieval  atti- 
tudes, since  they  are  human  habits  of  mind  not  wholly  banished,  let  us  say, 
from  the  liberal's  own  unconscious  mind.  If  you  really  know  that  x  is  evil  and 
by  its  very  existence  threatens  to  destroy  y,  which  you  know  equally  well  is 
good — the  good — you  can  hardly  avoid  concluding  that  x  must  be  got  rid  of 
as  completely  and  as  certainly  as  possible.  Such  certainty  here  on  earth  only 
death  affords.  I  do  not  quite  dare  in  these  days  suggest  that  the  problem 
of  toleration  is  one  of  pure  logic;  but  there  is  a  logic  of  the  emotions  in  which 
the  medieval  attitude  toward  heretics,  the  institution  of  the  Inquisitions  them- 
selves, is  clear,  and  untainted  with  the  abnormal. 

Indeed,  the  heretic  was  to  the  medieval  mind  the  abnormal,  the  corrupt. 
Here  is  Etienne  de  Bourbon  in  the  thirteenth  century: 

Heretics  are  refuse  and  debased,  and  therefore  they  may  not  return  to  their  for- 
mer state  but  by  a  miracle  of  God,  as  dross  may  not  return  to  silver,  nor  dregs  to 

Another  chronicler  tells  how,  after  the  orthodox  crusaders  had  successfully 
stormed  the  Albigensian  stronghold  of  Beziers,  their  leaders  came  to  the 
Abbot  of  Citeaux,  spiritual  guide  to  the  operation,  and  told  him  there  were 
Catholics  mingled  with  the  heretics  in  the  city. 

"What  shall  we  do,  Lord?  We  cannot  discern  between  the  good  and  evil."  The 
Abbot  (fearing,  as  also  did  the  rest,  lest  they  should  feign  themselves  Catholics 
from  fear  of  death,  and  should  return  again  to  their  faithlessness  after  his  de- 
parture,) is  said  to  have  answered:  "Slay  them,  for  God  knoweth  His  own."  So 
there  they  were  slain  in  countless  multitudes  in  that  city.35 

I  think  the  reader  will  understand  how  ordinary  medieval  folk  felt  about 
heretics  and  the  way  they  should  be  treated  if  he  will  reflect  on  how  ordinary 
newspaper  readers,  and  some  judges,  feel  about  "sexual  psychopaths"  today. 
There  is,  finally,  the  question,  I  think  unanswerable,  but  surely  unavoid- 
able for  us  in  our  multanimous  times:  Did  this  broad  medieval  unanimity 
(save  for  a  small  heretical  minority)  on  matters  of  religion,  this  common 

33  Coultoa,  Life  in  the  Middle  Ages,  Vol.  I,  pp.  87;  68. 


The  Middle  Ages 

acceptance  of  an  explanation  of  man's  fate,  even  of  the  whole  universe,  help 
make  men  less  unhappy,  give  them  a  mental  and  moral  security  we  lack,  make 
them,  to  come  out  with  the  stereotype,  less  neurotic?  We  cannot  give  statis- 
tical estimates  of  any  value  as  to  the  relative  incidence  of  mental  "disturb- 
ances" of  all  sorts  as  between  1850  and  1950,  let  alone  as  between  1250  and 
1950.  Our  literary  sources  make  it  perfectly  clear  that  madness — insanity — 
was  common  enough  in  the  Middle  Ages;  they  also  make  it  clear  that  the 
medieval  explanation  of  madness — essentially,  in  one  form  or  another,  pos- 
session of  the  soul  of  the  madman  by  agents  of  Satan — together  with  the 
medieval  habit  of  violence,  and  other  factors,  such  as  the  cost  of  care,  com- 
bined to  make  the  lot  of  these  unfortunate  madmen  unhappy  indeed,  most 
shocking,  to  our  notions.  But  for  the  great  majority  of  medieval  people  the 
question,  whether  put  in  the  form  "Was  there  less  neurosis  then  than  now?" 
or  in  the  less  pretentious  and  more  familiar  form  "Were  these  morally  and 
theologically  convinced  people  happier  than  we  are?"  is  quite  unanswerable, 
and,  not  merely  in  the  narrow  logical-analytical  sense,  meaningless.  I  should 
grossly  answer,  they  probably  were  not  happier.  But  the  Matthew  Arnold  who 
wrote  in  those  rosy  Victorian  times  felt  differently. 

The  Sea  of  Faith 

Was  once,  too,  at  the  full,  and  round  earth's  shore 

Lay  like  the  folds  of  a  bright  girdle  furl'd. 

But  now  I  only  hear 

Its  melancholy,  long,  withdrawing  roar, 

Retreating,  to  the  breath 

Of  the  night-wind,  down  the  vast  edges  drear 

And  naked  shingles  of  the  world.36 

And  so,  too,  do  our  own  contemporary  publicists  who  worry  over  our  obvious 
many-mindedness  in  these  great  matters  of  world  view.  They  give,  or  at  least 
imply,  another  answer,  that  medieval  men  had  a  spiritual  serenity  and,  there- 
fore, a  happiness  we  have  disastrously  lost.  The  skeptic  can  do  no  more  than 
conclude,  not  proven.  German  is  a  great  help  when  one  wants  to  be  vague. 
Sorrows  these  medieval  men  and  women  had,  if  not  our  world  sorrows;  but 
how  real  are  Weltschmerzen? 

36  Dover  Beach. 


The  Reformation 

THE  PAIRING  RENAISSANCE  AND  REFORMATION,  consecrated  in  American 
undergraduate  terms  as  "Ren  and  Ref "  in  many  a  college,  is  now  of  such  long 
standing  that  it  will  probably  survive  the  attacks  of  the  revisionists.  The  two 
coincide  roughly  in  time,  at  least  in  the  climactic  sixteenth  century,  and  they 
are  related,  as  all  parts  of  Western  culture  are  related.  But  to  tag  the  sixteenth 
century  as  "Renaissance  and  Reformation"  is  no  more  sensible  than  it  would 
be  to  tag  the  nineteenth  century  as  "Nationalism  and  Natural  Science."  The 
reformers  and  humanists,  even  though  there  were  individuals,  like  Erasmus, 
whose  lives  linked  them  personally,  were  different  men  trying  to  do  different 
things,  as  different  as  the  nationalist  Mazzini  and  the  scientist  Darwin.  For 
the  historian  of  morals  in  particular,  Reformation  and  Renaissance  are  dif- 
ferent worlds,  not  easily  yoked  in  any  metaphor,  not  even  as  obverse  and  re- 
verse of  a  medal  struck  against  the  Schoolmen. 

The  Reformation  belongs  essentially  to  the  history  of  the  Middle  Ages. 
The  movements  symbolized — yes,  let  us  avoid  the  trap  of  materialist  deter- 
mination and  say  frankly,  in  part  initiated  and  guided — by  men  like  Luther, 
Zwingli,  Cranmer,  and  Calvin  were  but  the  last  of  a  long  series  of  medieval 
outbreaks  of  the  profound  Christian  not-acceptance  of  things  as  they  are — but 
outbreaks  from  a  Christian  fortress,  not  freethinking  attacks  on  that  fortress. 
I  have  used  dull  and  flat  words  indeed;  the  matter  can  be  put  more  eloquently, 
and  perhaps,  therefore,  more  accurately:  The  Protestant  reformers  and  those 
of  the  Catholic  Reformation,  too,  were  the  heirs  and  successors  of  Benedict  of 
Nursia,  of  Hildebrand,  of  Bernard  of  Qairvaux,  of  Francis  of  Assisi,  of 


The  Reformation 

Wycliffe  and  Hus,  and  of  many  others  who  throughout  the  ages  sought  to  tear 
the  church  from  its  compromises  with  this  world  of  success,  wealth,  power, 
comfort,  cruelty,  thick-skinned  "realism,"  men  who  sought  to  bring  back  in 
all  its  freshness,  all  its  revolutionary  immediacy,  the  good  news  of  the  Gos- 
pels; they  were  not  precursors  of  Locke,  Voltaire,  Rousseau,  Franklin,  Jeffer- 
son, and  Bentham. 

Every  one  therefore  which  heareth  these  words  of  mine,  and  doeth  them  shall 
be  likened  unto  a  wise  man,  which  built  his  house  upon  the  rock:  and  the  rain 
descended,  and  the  floods  came,  and  the  winds  blew,  and  beat  upon  that  house; 
and  it  fell  not:  for  it  was  founded  upon  a  rock.  And  every  one  that  heareth 
these  words  of  mine  and  doeth  them  not,  shall  be  likened  unto  a  foolish  man 
which  built  his  house  upon  the  sand:  and  the  rain  descended,  and  the  floods 
came,  and  the  winds  blew,  and  smote  upon  that  house;  and  it  fell:  and  great  was 
the  fall  thereof.1 

There  are,  of  course,  great  differences  between  Luther  and  Calvin  and 
their  medieval  predecessors;  the  Protestant  reformers  broke  the  unity  of  West- 
ern Christendom.  Their  heresies  founded  successful  schismatic  churches, 
which  have  gone  on  multiplying  to  the  point  where  neither  heresy  nor  schism 
really  comes  into  many  a  modern  Protestant's  working  vocabulary,  any  more 
than  such  to  him  obsolete  words  as  "brook"  and  "village"  come  into  the 
Coloradan's  vocabulary.  Note,  incidentally,  that  the  cultural  environment  can 
be  as  tyrannical  as  the  geographic.  Until  Luther,  the  church  had  either  insti- 
tutionalized, tamed,  softened — I  do  not  mean  this  in  a  bad  sense — the  pas- 
sionate other-worldliness  of  a  Francis,  or  buried  under  the  weight  of  academic 
disapproval  the  incipient,  and  dangerous,  rationalism  of  an  Abelard,  or  simply 
exterminated  or,  at  least,  driven  underground  by  firm  suppression  threatening 
mass  heresies,  as  with  the  Albigensians.  That  Luther  and  Calvin  had  another 
fate  we  must  in  fairness  admit  is  due  in  part,  indeed  in  large  part,  to  a  great 
complex  of  causes,  some  of  which  the  analyst  must  list  as  economic,  political, 
institutional,  and  the  like.  But  the  fact  remains  that  Luther  and  Calvin  were 
not  entrepreneurs,  nor  nationalists,  nor — above  all  not  this — "modern" 
rationalists,  democrats,  workers  for  the  eventual  establishment  of  the  Jeffer- 
sonian-Jacksonian-Rooseveltian  republic  of  the  United  States.  They  were 
medieval  men:  Luther  an  Augustinian  monk  who  owed  a  great  deal  to  his 
founder,  Calvin  a  serious-minded  medieval  lawyer,  a  member  of  that  middle 
class  that  had  long  been  taking  over  the  work  of  running  things  that  the 
knights  could  not  or  would  not  do.  Neither  Luther  nor  Calvin,  for  that  matter 

i  Matthew  7:24-27. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

not  even  the  mildly  "rationalist"  Zwingli,  thought  of  himself  as  tearing  the 
seamless  web  of  Christendom,  as  setting  up  a  church  that  would  settle  down  in 
comfort  with  hundreds  of  other  schismatic  churches.  They  were  all  setting  up 
what  they  thought,  if  I  may  use  the  political  language  of  our  time,  was  the 
One  Church,  the  eglise  unique. 

That  the  Protestant  Reformation  helped  greatly  to  make  the  world  we  live 
in  should  be  most  obvious.  In  important  senses,  Protestantism  is  "modern," 
as  modern  as  science  and  technology.  But  this  modernity,  I  must  insist,  was 
not  planned  by  the  fathers  of  Protestantism,  was,  in  fact,  unforeseen  by  them, 
a  fine  example  of  something  obvious  to  all  but  the  very  naive  rationalist,  that 
a  planned  reform,  once  introduced  into  the  infinite  nexus  of  concrete  human 
relations,  can  have  quite  unpredictable  results.  Once  the  break  with  Rome 
was  in  the  making,  even  Luther,  driven  by  the  break  to  appeal  against  author- 
ity, against  tradition,  power,  status,  was  put  in  the  posture  of  defending  free- 
dom, innovation,  individualism,  "modernity."  Luther,  and  the  other  reform- 
ers, for  the  most  part,  wanted  men  free  from  Rome,  but  not  free  from  a  God 
who  was  no  anarchist,  no  scientific  naturalist,  who  was  a  churchman  and  a 
Christian;  but  any  challenge  to  authority,  any  challenge  as  eloquent  as  theirs, 
can  stir  the  anarchist  in  us  all,  the  anarchist  who  refuses  to  listen  to  the  old 
argument  that  true  freedom  for  the  individual  is  not  his  doing  what  he  wants, 
or  thinks  he  wants,  to  do,  but  his  doing  what  is  right,  what  you  want  him  to  do. 
Protestantism  did  help  make  the  non-Christian  world  view  of  the  Enlighten- 

That  the  Protestant  reformers  so  broke  up  the  formal  unity  of  Western 
Christendom  against  their  original  intentions  is  due  to  the  course  of  events 
dependent  in  part  on  quite  other  than  direct  religious  or  theological  concerns. 
To  such  concerns  we  shall  come  soon  enough.  Meanwhile,  our  starting  point 
must  be  the  same  as  Luther's,  Calvin's,  and  even  Loyola's:  how  to  do  God's 
will  on  earth,  or,  if  you  insist  on  the  moral  side  of  it,  how  to  make  men  more 
truly  Christians.  Now  it  is  true  that  the  reformers,  though  they  were  agreed 
that  the  Catholic  Church  of  the  early  sixteenth  century  was  not  fulfilling  its 
mission  on  earth,  were  in  broad  disagreement  as  to  just  what  this  mission 
should  be.  The  range  of  Protestant  opinions  as  to  the  true  Christian  mission 
is  great,  almost  coextensive  with  the  range  of  human  nature.  On  the  rejection 
of  certain  specific  Catholic  institutions,  such  as  monasticism,  celibacy  of  the 
clergy,  and  a  few  others,  there  is  nearly  unanimity  among  the  early  Protes- 
tants. Theologically,  however,  it  is  hard  to  weave  a  blanket  wide  enough  to 
cover  all  the  Protestant  reformers.  Luther  at  his  most  excited — which  is  very 


The  Reformation 

excited — pushed  the  doctrine  of  salvation  by  faith  alone  to  the  point  of  an- 
archy, a  point  at  which  his  own  new  Lutheran  Church  never  arrived,  and 
where  Luther  the  administrator  did  not  stay  for  long.  In  a  very  general  sense 
it  may  be  true  that  religious  rebels  appeal  to  faith  as  against  works  just  as 
political  and  moral  rebels  appeal  to  liberty  against  authority,  but  the  general- 
ization is  too  broad  to  be  very  useful;  the  facts  resist  this  particular  dualism 
more  clearly  even  than  usual.  Some  of  the  reformers  seem  to  have  wanted  no 
more  than  to  take  over  the  governance  of  the  church  from  Rome;  a  "high 
church"  party  is  present  from  the  start  in  the  Anglican  and  the  Lutheran 
Churches,  a  party  that  hardly  feels  at  all  the  evangelical  need  to  make  the 
good  news  revolutionary,  earth-rending. 

If  now  you  ask  what  moved  these  reformers  to  want  the  particular  kind  of 
evangel  they  preached,  and  if  what  moved  them  to  various  expressed  religious 
aims  was  not  simply  various  changes  in  their  concrete  cultural  environment — 
the  coming  of  nationalism,  capitalism,  science,  technology,  and  the  like — we 
are  right  back  at  the  old,  unsolvable,  unavoidable  problem  of  circularity  of 
causation.  I  can  only  repeat  that  the  problem  seems  to  me  really  unsolvable. 
But  I  think  that  one  reason  why  Luther,  Zwingli,  Calvin,  and  perhaps  even 
Henry  VIII  wanted  what  they  wanted  was  because  they  could  read,  and  being 
able  to  read,  they  could  read  such  prodding  sentences  as: 

Take  heed  that  ye  do  not  your  righteousness  before  men,  to  be  seen  of  them: 
else  ye  have  no  reward  with  your  Father  which  is  in  heaven. 

No  man  can  serve  two  masters:  for  either  he  will  hate  the  one,  and  love  the  other; 
or  else  he  will  hold  to  one,  and  despise  the  other.  Ye  cannot  serve  God  and 


We  may  go  direct  to  what  is,  certainly  for  the  historian  of  Western  morals, 
the  most  important  spot  on  the  Protestant  spectrum — the  way  of  life  associ- 
ated with  that  big  word  "Puritanism,"  or,  almost  as  big  a  word,  "Calvinism."3 
"Puritanism,"  especially,  is  one  of  those  imprecise  words  that  irritate  the 
semanticist,  no  doubt  unduly.  It  does  have  a  hard  core,  which  I  suggest  can 
be  reasonably  well  located  as  a  belief  that  the  individual,  the  person,  has  a 

2  Matthew  6:1;  6:24.  "Righteousness"  in  6:1  may  be  "almsgiving";  but  the  central 
notion  is  clear. 

3  I  cannot  here  go  into  church  history  and  history  of  dogma  sufficiently  to  cover  the 
varieties  of  Protestantism.  For  a  brief  survey  I  can  send  the  reader  to  my  Ideas  and 
Men,  pp.  316-333,  and  to  the  works  suggested  for  reading  with  that  chapter. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

spiritual  component  (not  a  phrase  the  Puritan  would  like — he  would  say 
simply  a  soul)  which  can  and  ought  to  control  rigorously  the  demands  of  his 
fleshly  component,  his  body.  Such  demands  are  many  and  varied,  and  the 
Puritan,  historically  considered,  in  his  sixteenth-  and  seventeenth-century 
setting  and  in  his  modern  one,  has  varied  in  his  estimate  of  their  badness  as 
well  as  in  his  measures  to  control  them.  The  Puritan  ought,  however,  to  be 
distinguished  from  the  Christian  mystic  and  the  Christian  ascetic,  much 
though  he  has  in  common  with  these  protesters  against  the  Chretien  moyen 
sensuel.  The  Puritan  does  not  flee  this  world,  does  not  deny  the  flesh,  does  not 
by  any  means  seek  to  annihilate  the  flesh;  he  does  seek  to  control  the  flesh, 
which  means  under  certain  conditions  refusing  its  demands. 

Now  "Puritanism"  is  the  semanticist's  despair — as  are  so  many  of  the 
words  the  moralist,  and  the  social  scientist  as  well,  must  use — not  so  much 
because  of  taxonomic  sloppiness  in  the  way  it  is  used  generally,  but  because 
of  the  human  sentiments  of  love  and  hate  that  inform,  and  deform,  its  use. 
Especially  for  the  English-speaking  peoples,  it  is  important  to  note  that  cer- 
tain tendencies  of  earlier  Puritanism  were  incorporated  into  the  way  of  life  we 
call  "Victorian"  and  were,  in  the  process  of  incorporation,  twisted  in  ways 
Calvin  or  John  Knox  would  not  have  recognized.  When  in  the  early  twentieth 
century  the  literary  led  a  mass  onslaught  against  everything  Victorian,  Puritan- 
ism was  one  of  the  first  and  most  often  buried  of  the  victims.  We  when  young 
knew  the  Puritan  was  life-denying,  joy-killing,  and  a  hypocrite  in  the  bargain. 
The  balance  has  swung  back  again,  but  the  echoes  of  the  great  noise  set  up 
by  Mencken  and  many  another  are  not  wholly  stilled.  It  takes  an  effort  to  get 
back  to  the  Puritanism  of  the  sixteenth  and  seventeenth  centuries.4 

What  the  Puritanism  of  Calvin,  Knox,  the  Mathers,  and  all  the  others 
meant  for  morals  is,  of  course,  closely  tied  to  the  systematic  thought  of  these 
leaders  on  matters  of  theology.  For  us,  their  central  position  is  a  very  firm 
insistence  on  the  absolute  omnipotence  of  God  and  on  the  wormlike  insignifi- 
cance of  man.  But  these  thinkers  differ  greatly  from  the  author  of  the  Book 
of  Job,  who  ends  with  one  of  the  most  eloquent  assertions  of  God's  inscru- 
table might  and  man's  presumptuous  weakness.  The  Calvinists  do  not — so  the 

*  The  reader  should  go  to  the  soundly  balanced  studies  of  Perry  Miller,  The  New 
England  Mind:  The  Seventeenth  Century,  New  York,  Macmillan,  1939,  and  The  New 
England  Mind:  From  Colony  to  Province,  Cambridge,  Harvard  University  Press,  1953. 
George  F.  Willison,  Saints  and  Strangers,  New  York,  Reynal  and  Hitchcock,  1945, 
tries  to  redress  the  balance  in  a  way  all  too  common,  by  asserting  that  what  is  usually 

said  about  the  Puritans — at  least  about  those  in  and  around  Massachusetts  Bay is  the 

opposite  of  the  truth.  But  then,  historians  have  to  make  discoveries,  just  as  scientists  do. 


The  Reformation 

outsider  must  conclude  from  their  actions — quite  find  God's  will  inscrutable. 
God  might  indeed  have  condemned  us  all  to  hell.  Adam's  sin  was  reason 
enough,  but  the  Calvinist's  God  does  not  need  reasons,  not  reasons  tailored 
to  poor  human  understanding,  and  there  are  moments  in  the  sermons  of 
Puritan  divines  when  it  seems  as  though  God,  turned  Freudianly  anthropo- 
morphic, sadistically  enjoys  our  suffering,  and  intends  to  keep  piling  it  on. 
This  is  surely  true  of  Jonathan  Edwards's  "Sinners  in  the  Hands  of  an  Angry 
God,"  notably  the  famous  passage: 

The  God  that  holds  you  over  the  pit  of  hell,  much  as  one  holds  a  spider,  or  some 
loathsome  insect,  over  the  fire,  abhors  you,  and  is  dreadfully  provoked:  his  wrath 
towards  you  burns  like  fire;  he  looks  upon  you  as  worthy  of  nothing  else,  but  to 
be  cast  into  the  fire;  he  is  of  purer  eyes  than  to  bear  to  have  you  in  his  sight;  you 
are  ten  thousand  times  more  abominable  in  his  eyes,  than  the  most  hateful 
venomous  serpent  is  in  ours.5 

If,  however,  you  read  the  whole  sermon  unsympathetically  enough,  you  will 
have  no  trouble  concluding  that  Edwards  was  skilled  in  what  the  complainers 
nowadays  worry  over  as  "motivational  research,"  that  he  was  a  gifted  but  by 
no  means  "hidden"  persuader.6 

The  Calvinists  were  desirous  of  saving  men's  souls,  and  of  getting  them 
to  act  on  earth  in  such  a  way  as  to  make  salvation  at  least  not  impossible. 
They  were  surprisingly  practical  men,  not  anchorites,  not  mystics;  they  were 
men  for  whom  the  cure  of  souls  meant  saving  souls  to  further  the  good  on 
this  earth.  This  in  turn  meant  knowing  something  about  God's  wishes.  If  you 
assumed  these  Calvinists  to  be  rationalists,  you  might  accuse  them  of  both 
inconsistency  and  pride.  But  they  were  not  rationalists,  and  they  did  not  need 
to  account  to  anyone  for  their  knowledge  of  God — except  to  God,  and  in  a 
very  exacting,  if  not  rationalistic,  accounting.  But  as  outsiders,  we  may  dis- 
tinguish two  contradictions  between  their  theology  and  their  ethics. 

The  first  we  have  already  dwelt  upon,  for  it  runs  through  Western  moral 
and  intellectual  history.  Theologically,  the  Calvinists  were  extreme  deter- 
minists;  ethically,  though  the  orthodox  ardently  repudiated  those  doctrines 
of  mere  "conditional"  predestination  and  even  outright  freedom  of  the  will 
later  grouped  as  "Arminianism,"  they  were  clear  that  their  duty  was  to  fight 
evil  here  on  earth,  and  thus  make  the  necessary  prevail.  The  Calvinists,  espe- 
cially during  their  great  debates  of  the  seventeenth  century,  are  most  interest- 
ing because  they  are  ferociously  determined  to  solve  this  puzzle  of  predesti- 

5  The  Works  of  Jonathan  Edwards,  AM.,  London,  Ball,  Arnold,  1840,  Vol.  H,  p.  10. 
6 1  hesitate  to  make  so  rationalistic  a  suggestion  as  that  Edwards  knew  what  he  was  doing. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

nation,  to  keep  their  insufferably  powerful  God  from  appearing  to  poor 
humans  quite  the  tyrant  he  looked  like — indeed,  had  to  be.  Their  leaders 
wrestled  with  the  problem;  the  ordinary  Calvinist  had  to  live  with  it.  He  lived 
with  it  as,  fortunately,  human  beings  even  in  the  West  have  lived  with  their 
metaphysical  anxieties,  by  solutions  adjusting,  somehow,  sentiments,  emo- 
tions, habits,  and  at  least  a  minimal  demand  of  the  intellect.  The  commonest 
solution  was  not  far  from  Job's:  man  cannot  know  all  God  knows,  or  he 
would  be  God,  which  is  unthinkable;  therefore,  the  individual  cannot  know, 
cannot  be  certain,  that  he  belongs  to  the  predestined  saved  (as  the  antinomian 
John  of  Leyden  was  said  to  have  believed  of  himself)  instead  of  to  the  pre- 
destined damned;  the  individual  is  not,  however,  wholly  without  some  light 
on  the  differences  visible  here  on  earth  between  saved  and  damned;  the 
saved  are  likely  to  do  the  ethically  right  thing,  a  thing  clear  in  the  whole 
community  of  the  Puritans,  the  damned  to  do  the  ethically  wrong  thing;  there- 
fore, the  individual  who  feels  any  inclination  to  do  what  he  knows  is  wrong 
will  suppress — he  is  as  yet  without  benefit  of  Freud — any  such  inclinations; 
he  will  behave  as  if  saved,  in  the  hope  that  he  is  saved,  according  to  rigidly 
predestined  plans  made  by  God  in  eternity  for  this  testing  earthly  prelude  to 
eternity.  It  is  no  test  for  God,  who  knows  how  it  will  come  out;  but  it  is  a 
fearfully  uncertain  test  for  the  tested. 

The  second  Calvinist  difficulty  does  indeed,  at  least  in  its  historical  aspect, 
deserve  to  be  called  an  inconsistency.  The  Calvinists  at  their  most  extreme 
made  the  sharpest  of  distinctions  between  the  very  few  saved,  the  saints,  and 
the  very  many  damned,  the  sinners.  This  sort  of  distinction  in  worldly  matters 
is  clearly  one  between  the  aristoi  and  the  polloi.  The  Calvinists  were  aristo- 
crats of  the  spirit.  Yet  they  appear  in  some  senses  to  have  fathered  democracy, 
both  of  the  flesh  and  of  the  spirit.  Again  in  terms  of  historical  development, 
there  is  no  real  difficulty  here.  In  the  first  place,  the  Calvinists  were  for  the 
most  part,  save  in  France,  where  some  of  the  great  nobles  made  use  of  Cal- 
vinism in  their  unsuccessful  fight  with  the  crown,  members  of  the  landed 
gentry,  caught  in  the  squeeze  of  inflation,  the  professional  classes,  or  the 
merchant  classes.  They  did  not  like  what  was  left  of  the  old  feudal  nobility, 
and  said  so  firmly.  They  at  least  helped  discredit  an  older  and  quite  different 
kind  of  aristocracy.  Second,  Calvinist  ethics,  as  Max  Weber  pointed  out,  had 
its  part  in  the  long  process  by  which  capitalism  and  its  complex  of  values, 
some  of  which  made  for  egalitarian  democracy,  prevailed  in  the  West.  Third, 
Calvinism  got  its  start  in  rebellion  against  the  established  church;  and  in  the 
West  rebellion  of  any  consequence  has  always  had  to  appeal  to  the  individual 


The  Reformation 

to  make  the  decision  to  break  with  habit,  law,  established  right,  and  such  a 
break  must  be  made  in  the  name  of  the  individual's  right  to  think  for  himself, 
to  be  a  "free"  man.  In  short,  Calvinism  carried  with  it  seeds  of  a  way  of  life 
very  different  from  that  of  Geneva,  Amsterdam,  Edinburgh,  and  Boston. 

In  those  places,  and  wherever  it  flourished  pristinely,  however,  Calvinism 
was  not  democratic,  not  libertarian,  not  really  "modern."  An  American's 
mind  at  these  words  leaps  at  once  to  the  Salem  witchcraft  trials.  The  historian 
is  not  surprised  at  these  trials,  but,  rather,  at  the  fact  that  there  were  not  many 
more  of  them.  For  the  Calvinist  at  bottom  saw  the  universe  as  his  medieval  an- 
cestors had  seen  it,  as  the  universe  of  Christian  cosmology,  not  by  any  means 
the  universe  of  the  "Newtonian  world-machine."  That  from  Calvinist  societies 
there  came  so  much  so  different  from  what  the  first  Calvinists  could  possibly 
have  planned  or  expected  or  wanted  is  in  part  explicable,  as  we  shall  shortly 
see,  in  terms  of  the  theoretical  explanations  made  by  men  like  Weber  and 
Tawney.  But  it  is  in  part  also  explicable  by  the  fact  that  in  ethics  and  politics 
ideas  can  have  consequences  not  clear  to  those  who  first  develop  these  ideas; 
or,  in  a  familiar  figure  of  speech,  idea  seeds  do  not  always  grow  into  quite  the 
plant  the  sower  had  expected.7  Calvin,  Knox,  and  the  rest  did  not  knowingly 
sow  what  we  have  recently  been  reaping. 

Much  of  the  way  of  life  that  developed  out  of  their  leadership  did  prove 
congruous  with  the  channeling  of  human  energies  into  the  great  increase  in 
material  wealth,  in  human  command  over  natural  resources,  that  made  the 
modern  West  unique.  We  have  come  to  the  "Weber  thesis,"  one  of  those 
ideas,  or  "leads,"  or  simply  "interpretations,"  that  are  now  part  of  the  slowly 
cumulative  study  of  human  conduct.8  Greatly  simplified,  Weber's  thesis — 
which  he  insists  is  a  sociological,  not  a  psychological,  thesis — is  this:  the 
Protestant,  and  more  especially  the  Calvinist,  worked  hard  on  this  earth  in 
the  station  to  which  he  had  been  called — usually  in  what  we  should  now  call 
"business"  of  some  sort  or  a  profession  like  law  or  medicine;  he  worked  hard 
because  he  believed  God  wanted  him  to  follow  his  vocation  faithfully,  and 

7  The  stock  example  is  the  relation  between  the  Locke-De  Lolme-Blackstone  concept  of 
the  separation  of  powers  in  eighteenth-century  Britain — in  itself  to  some  extent  objec- 
tively erroneous — and  its  later  development  in  American  constitutional  history.  On  this 
see  A.  L.  Lowell,  "An  Example  from  the  Evidence  of  History,"  in  Factors  Determining 
Human  Behavior,  Harvard  Tercentenary  Publications,  Cambridge,  Mass.,  Harvard  Uni- 
versity Press,  1937,  p.  119. 

8  The  reader  had  best  go  direct  to  the  locus  classicus,  Max  Weber,  The  Protestant  Ethic 
and  the  Spirit  of  Capitalism,  ed.  by  T.  Parsons,  New  York,  Scribner,  1930.  Also  R.  H. 
Tawney,  Religion  and  the  Rise  of  Capitalism,  new  ed.,  New  York,  Harcourt,  Brace, 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

also,  no  doubt,  because  "the  devil  lies  in  wait  for  idle  hands";  he  believed, 
also,  that  success  in  his  worldly  enterprises  was  a  sign  that  God  was  with  him; 
he  had  no  scruples  about  the  morality  of  interest-taking,  nor  in  general  about 
the  whole  economic  structure  of  nascent  industrial  capitalism;  he  was  ready, 
once  technology  had  got  that  far,  to  put  his  capital  into  new  power  machinery 
which  in  turn  snowballed  into  the  great  productive  capacity  of  the  modern 
world.  If,  as  a  consumer  and  an  encourager  of  consumption,  he  was  certainly 
no  ascetic,  the  kinds  of  products  his  tastes  and  his  ethics  impelled  him  to  turn 
out  were  the  solid  goods  of  large-scale  production,  mass  market,  profits 
plowed  back,  not  the  luxury  goods  of  the  artist  and  craftsman  working  to 
provide  noble  and  churchman  with  "superfluous"  end  products.  Even  his 
churches  were  bare  of  the  kind  of  ornamentation  that  costs  heavily  in  support 
of  "unproductive"  artists.  In  short,  the  Protestant  turned  great  moral  ener- 
gies, such  as  inspired  the  best  of  medieval  monasticism,  not,  so  to  speak, 
away  from  this-worldly  economic  productivity,  but  directly  into  it. 

Weber  himself  had  been  influenced  by  Marxism,  and  seems  to  have  felt 
that  the  Protestant  ethic  helped  the  capitalist  to  justify  what  was  "exploita- 
tion" of  the  workers.  The  Englishman  Tawney,  and  others  who  have  pursued 
this  line  of  study,  have  gone  further.  They  are  clear  that  the  Calvinist  ethical 
concept  of  worldly  success  as  a  sign  from  God  that  the  successful  was  not 
unlikely  to  be  numbered  by  God  among  the  saved  was  extended  by  the  suc- 
cessful capitalist  to  include  the  convenient  notion  that  failure  to  make  money 
— remaining  in  the  status  of  a  paid  worker  with  no  capital  save  his  capacity 
to  work  for  a  bare  wage — was  a  sign  from  God  that  the  worker  was  perhaps 
damned,  or  had  somehow  sinned,  if  only  by  being  lazy  and  incompetent. 
Even  ordinary  Christian  charity  migjit  seem  interference  with  the  will  of  God; 
to  this  may  be  added  the  general  Calvinist  notion  of  predestination,  which 
could  be  used  to  justify  any  established  relation,  and  also  the  common  Protes- 
tant appeal  to  the  individual  as  against  authority,  which  could  be  used  to 
justify  economic  individualism,  or  laissez  faire,  as  it  was  later  called. 

The  sum  total  puts  too  much  of  a  burden  on  the  Protestant  ethic.  By  the 
eighteenth  century,  many  other  ideas  and  influences  were  coming  to  bear  on 
the  economic  structure  of  the  West.  But  even  to  limit  the  discussion  to  the 
sixteenth  and  seventeenth  centuries,  one  must  first  of  all  show  that  there  was 
in  fact  "exploitation"  of  workers.  Absolutely,  in  terms  of  real  income,  it 
would  seem  difficult  to  show  that  workers  were  worse  off  in  these  early  mod- 
ern times  than  in  medieval  times.  Relatively,  in  terms  of  a  comparison  be- 


The  Reformation 

tween  what  the  middle  classes  and  what  the  workers  gained  from  the  slowly 
increasing  economic  productivity  of  the  early  modern  centuries,  it  may  be 
that  the  workers,  no  longer  effectively  protected  by  their  obsolescent  medieval 
guild  and  companionship  organizations,  did  fall  behind.  But  one  would  be 
safer  with  a  Scots  verdict  of  "not  proven."  The  fury  with  which  the  twentieth- 
century  attack  on  capitalism,  industrialism,  the  Protestant  ethic,  has  been 
carried  out  is  in  part  simply  a  manifestation  of  sentiments  of  revolt,  not  very 
different  from  those  that  inspired  Menckenian  attacks  on  Puritanism. 

An  even  greater  difficulty  with  the  Weber  thesis  taken  as  a  blanket  ex- 
planation of  modern  capitalism  is  the  fact  that  so  much  of  the  spirit  of  capital- 
ism is  discernible  in  the  late  medieval  world  before  the  Protestant  revolt. 
There  is  a  good  symbol  here:  the  ledgers  of  the  fourteenth-century  Florentine 
merchant  Datini — two  centuries  before  Calvin — are  headed  "In  the  name  of 
God  and  of  profit."  Datini  was  one  of  those  obsessive  persons  who  can  de- 
stroy no  papers,  and  by  extraordinary  luck  the  life  record  of  this  otherwise 
ordinary  person  is  available  to  us.  It  shows  much  the  same  combination  of 
business  and  religious  anxieties,  of  concern  for  his  far-flung  business  interests 
and  for  his  future  life,  that  come  out  in  Weber's  Protestant  Ethic* 

Well  before  the  Protestant  revolt,  firm  foundations  of  modern  capitalism 
had  been  laid  in  Italy,  in  the  Low  Countries.  Capitalist  careers,  those  of  a 
Jacques  Coeur  in  France,  of  the  Fugger  family  in  Germany,  had  been  made 
by  men  untouched  by  the  Protestant  ethic.  Venetian  trade  with  the  Levant, 
the  English  wool  trade,  the  Hanseatic  trade  are  all  medieval  examples  of 
highly  organized  marketing  methods  dependent  on  banking  and  on  "business" 
mentality.  The  Protestant  ethic  was  an  important  contributory  factor  in  the 
rise  of  capitalist  society  in  those  nations  of  Europe  which,  on  the  whole,  were 
later  to  be  the  leaders  of  the  industrial  world:  Britain,  North  Germany,  Hol- 
land, the  United  States.  But  the  map  of  nineteenth-century  industrial  leader- 
ship does  not  exactly  coincide  with  the  map  of  Protestantism:  Belgium,  North- 
ern France,  the  German  Rhineland,  Piedmont-Lombardy  remained  Catholic 
countries,  and  yet  full  of  the  "spirit  of  capitalism."  Some  of  what  went  into 
the  frame  of  mind  that  made  capitalism  is  not  specifically  Protestant  nor 
specifically  Catholic,  but,  rather,  Western,  a  product  of  the  long  moral  history 
we  have  been  tracing,  and  no  doubt  of  the  long  moral  prehistory  we  cannot 
trace.  The  agon,  the  Western  ritual  of  formal  competition,  or  combat,  if  you 

9  Iris  Origo,  The  Merchant  of  Prato,  New  York,  Knopf,  1957.  Datini's  ledger  is  quoted 
on  p.  viiL  See  especially  the  Marchesa  Origo's  perceptive  introduction. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

prefer,  at  some  point  in  the  Middle  Ages,  perhaps  as  early  as  that  marvelous 
thirteenth  century,  began  to  take  economic  channels  that  were  to  lead  to  the 
Napoleons  of  industry.  We  cannot  fully  understand  why  human  energies  took 
this  turn,  but  once  it  was  taken,  the  Weber  thesis,  and  the  Marxist  thesis,  help 
us  to  understand  why  these  energies  were  so  effective.  Protestantism  helped 
weaken  that  contempt  for  the  banausic  that  dominated  the  Western  warrior 
aristocracies  so  long,  and  that  contempt  for  everything  this-worldly — includ- 
ing the  banausic — that  filled  the  minds  of  some  of  the  ablest  and  most  ener- 
getic of  the  priestly  aristocracies. 

It  is,  finally,  worth  noting  that  as  long  as  Protestantism  in  any  of  its 
forms — including,  very  notably,  Calvinism — remained  what  I  have  elsewhere 
called  an  "active"  religion  it  by  no  means  encouraged  the  worldly  way  of  life 
Weber,  Tawney,  and  others  have  analyzed.  The  Christian  who  takes  his  reli- 
gion to  be  his  whole  life — and  this  is  true  of  the  active  phase  of  any  form  of 
the  Christian  religion — cannot  possibly  be  first  and  foremost  an  entrepreneur 
or  a  capitalist.  He  need  not — the  Protestant  did  not — flee  this  world  as  did 
the  anchorites.  But  he  cannot  make  worldly  success  even  one  of  his  major 
goals;  his  mind  must  be  on  other  things,  even  if  those  other  things  are  mind- 
ing other  and  weaker,  or,  at  any  rate,  less  religious  men's  business.  Calvin's 
own  Geneva  was  by  no  means  a  progressive  industrial  center;  nor  is  the 
Boston  of  the  Mathers  very  clearly  as  yet  the  germ  of  the  Boston  of  the 
Lawrences,  the  Lowells,  the  Forbeses. 

Once  the  fire  goes  out  of  Calvinism,  once  it  becomes  sober,  respectable,  a 
matter  of  routine — not,  be  it  understood,  therefore  a  matter  of  mere  form,  or 
hypocrisy,  or  pharisaism,  though  it  always  seems  such  to  the  next  set  of 
rebels — once  Calvinism  is  "inactive,"  then  the  Weber  thesis  does  seem  to 
hold.  The  moral  residue  of  Calvinism,  after  the  intense  fusion  of  theology  and 
ethics  in  the  heart  of  the  believer  no  longer  obtains,  is  congruous  indeed  with 
the  "spirit  of  capitalism."  But  so,  too,  under  favoring  conditions,  is  the  moral 
residue  of  Catholicism.  Modern,  industrial  capitalism  found  less  good  soil  in 
many  Catholic  countries,  such  as  Italy,  in  large  part  because  such  countries 
lacked  coal  and  iron.  Moreover,  Catholic  habits,  traditions,  its  network  of 
established  values,  certainly  made  for  conservative  resistance  to  change — and 
change  is  the  essence  of  capitalism.  But  once,  as  in  Belgium,  Northern  France, 
Piedmont,  the  new  capitalism  got  a  start,  it  found  in  the  disciples  of  estab- 
lished Catholicism  a  by  no  means  unfavorable  spiritual  climate.10 

10 1  owe  this  point  to  David  Landes,  who  in  his  studies  of  the  very  Catholic  textile  center 
Roubaix-Tourcoing  has  found  a  living  ''Protestant  ethic"  in  Weber's  sense. 


The  Reformation 


This  central  world-view  of  Protestantism,  which  we  have  to  call  Puritanism, 
was  by  no  means  limited  to  the  formal  Calvinist  sects.  Puritan  ethics  and 
Puritan  morals  are  found  in  wide  sectors  of  the  conservative  state  churches, 
the  Anglican  and  the  Lutheran,  and  they  inspire  many  of  the  wilder  sects  of 
the  Left  of  Protestantism.  Now  many  of  these  groups,  both  of  the  Right  and 
of  the  Left,  by  no  means  shared  the  deteraiinist  theology  of  the  Calvinists. 
Puritanism  as  a  moral  ideal  and  as  a  way  of  life  is  broader  than  any  theology. 
Calvinism  is  its  core,  but  there  is  a  wide  margin  around  that  core,  a  margin 
unmistakably  Puritan. 

The  Puritan  as  a  moral  ideal  in  the  sixteenth  and  seventeenth  centuries 
is  more  difficult  for  us  today  to  understand  than  the  Greek  beautiful-and- 
good,  the  feudal  knight,  or  the  medieval  saint,  perhaps  because  the  Puritan 
ideal,  very  considerably  altered,  and  often  not  recognized  as  such,  is  nonethe- 
less so  alive  with  many  twentieth-century  Americans.  We  do  not,  I  think,  see 
the  ideal  embodied  in  an  ecclesiastic,  not  in  Calvin  himself,  nor  in  Knox,  Beza, 
nor  even  in  some  less-known  and  presumably  more  typical  Puritan  divine. 
Though  we  refer  freely  to  the  Puritan  "theocracies"  of  Geneva  or  Boston,  we 
do  not  think  of  the  Puritan  ideal  in  clerical  terms.  Cromwell  comes  closer.  He 
is  certainly,  in  the  Carlylean  sense  of  the  word,  the  Puritan  hero.  His  aware- 
ness of — "intimacy  with"  is  not  quite  the  fair  way  to  put  it — God,  his 
troubles  with  his  conscience,  his  mastery  of  discipline  for  himself  and  for  his 
men,  his  Puritan  orthodoxy  in  dress  and  manners,  his  practical  gifts  of  com- 
mand and  persuasion — all  this  fits  in  with  the  ideal. 

But  for  what  I  have  called  the  moral  ideal  one  does  not  go  to  the  great,  the 
geniuses.  The  moral  ideal  is  never  perfectly  embodied  in  anyone.  It  is  a 
concrete  abstraction  built  up  from  many  sources.  A  good  many  Americans, 
in  spite  of  the  work  of  the  debunkers,  still  see  the  Puritan  as  the  conven- 
tionally handsome  young  man  the  sculptor  Daniel  French  made  into  a  bronze 
John  Harvard,  or  the  grave,  mature,  sturdy  Puritan  of  St.  Gaudens's  Deacon 
Chapin  in  Springfield,  Massachusetts.  And  it  does  seem  again  that  physically 
the  Puritan  ought  not  to  be  frail,  ought  not  to  look  (to  use  a  favorite  word  of 
the  nineteenth  century)  too  "spiritual."  Nor  ought  he,  though  John  Milton 
was  indeed  a  Puritan,  be  poet  or  artist.  Tawney  to  the  contrary  notwithstand- 
ing, he  ought  not  to  be  a  London  or  an  Amsterdam  merchant  or  banker. 

Our  best  lead  here  is  David  Riesman's  phrase  "inner-directed."  The  Puri- 
tan was  alive  to  the  civil  war  in  the  breast,  and  knew  that  he  had  to  fight  it. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

God  was  on  his  side,  wanted  him  to  win,  would  even,  in  the  sense  of  the 
typical  Puritan  adage  that  "God  helps  those  who  help  themselves,"  be  his  ally. 
Still,  the  war  was  no  war  of  coalition — not  on  the  Puritan's  side  at  least.  He 
had  to  fight  himself  with  himself,  alone.  The  outside  world  of  nature  and  of 
other  men  did  not  necessarily  seem  hostile  to  him  in  his  struggle,  though  in 
comparison  with  later  humanitarian  and  universalist  faiths  Puritanism  is  pes- 
simistic, has  in  its  full  strength  the  vein  of  iron  that  runs  through  Christianity, 
both  active  and  inactive.  The  Puritan  was  not  antisocial,  asocial;  he  knew  he 
had  to  get  on  with  his  fellows.  He  knew  that  charity  was  enjoined  on  him  as 
a  duty,  and  that  he  had  to  do  his  duty. 

His  commanding  general  in  this  war  with  himself,  which  did  often  involve 
war  with  others,  was  his  conscience.  He  would  not,  I  think,  even  were  he  a 
strictly  orthodox  Calvinist,  have  easily  thought  of  his  conscience  as  "deter- 
mined" by  something  quite  outside  him,  even  if  that  something  were  God. 
His  conscience  was  himself.  (Here,  incidentally,  is  the  heart  of  the  intellectual 
difficulty  with  unconditional  predestination  I  have  discussed  above.)  As  out- 
siders, we  may  hold  that  his  conscience  responded  to  the  voice  of  a  particular 
cultural  tradition,  to  the  pressures  of  his  fellow  Puritans,  to  the  demands  of 
the  body  he  was  disciplining,  to  an  unconscious  he  had  never  heard  about.  He 
was  always  sure  it  was  his  voice,  and  always  hoped  that  it  was  echoing  God's. 

Concretely,  his  conscience  told  him  to  obey  the  Ten  Commandments.  The 
Puritan's  dependence  on  the  Bible  is  a  commonplace,  and  so,  too,  is  his 
tendency  to  go  first  to  the  Old  rather  than  the  New  Testament.  This  last  point 
must  not  be  exaggerated,  however,  or  we  shall  fall  into  the  errors  of  the 
debunkers  of  the  1920's,  who  made  out  the  Puritans  to  be  ferocious  devotees 
of  a  revived  Jehovah  utterly  forgetful  of  the  Sermon  on  the  Mount.  Here,  as 
so  often  in  matters  of  morals  and  taste,  one  needs  a  hairspring  balance.  The 
Puritan,  like  most  morally  earnest  men  in  the  Western  tradition,  had  at  least 
a  touch  of  the  Stoic.  His  inner-direction  would  not  let  him  wear  his  heart  on 
his  sleeve,  but  it  is  not  fair  to  say  that  he  had  no  heart.  He  liked  order,  disci- 
pline, neatness,  and  these  things  he  did  not  find  in  the  undeserving  poor  who 
are  the  usual  objects  of  charity.  But  he  was  even  harder  on  himself  than  OP 
others,  if  he  lived  up  to  the  ideal;  and  the  world  he  wanted  this  one  to  be  was 
surely  not  a  cruel  world. 

Nor  was  it  a  gloomy  one,  a  prison  for  the  flesh.  We  must  continue  to  step 
carefully.  The  Puritan  was  certainly  no  hedonist.  Much  that  in  normal  West- 
era  practice,  and  even  in  normal  Western  ideal,  is  at  worst  harmless  pleasure, 
he  felt  was  following  the  Devil's  lead.  In  those  few  times  and  places  when  the 


The  Reformation 

strongly  Puritanical  were  in  full  power,  they  translated  their  ideal  into  blue 
laws,  sumptuary  legislation  of  all  sorts,  the  laws  of  a  "republic  of  virtue."  A 
rigid  Sabbatarianism  has  long  been  the  symbol  of  this  phase  of  the  rule  of  the 
saints,  one  that  sticks  firmly  in  the  craws  of  their  many  opponents  and  that 
gave  rise  to  the  well-known  squib: 

To  Banbery  came  I,  O  prophane  one! 
Where  I  saw  a  Puritane-one, 
Hanging  of  his  Cat  on  Monday, 
For  killing  of  a  Mouse  on  Sonday.11 

The  Puritans  passed  laws  to  compel  non-Puritans  to  behave  in  certain 
ways  because,  like  good  heirs  of  a  long  Western  history,  they  thought  this 
was  the  way  to  regulate  morals.  They  had  not  had  Political  Science  104  in  a 
good  American  college,  and  did  not  know  that  sumptuary  and  suchlike  legis- 
lation was  ineffective.  Moreover,  in  ideal,  and  to  a  great  extent  in  practice,  the 
Puritan  required  no  more  from  others  than  he  required  from  himself.  If  he 
believed  the  community  should  have  rigorous  codes  of  conduct,  he  had  al- 
ready been  rigorous  with  himself.  There  were  Puritan  hypocrites,  of  course, 
but  Robert  Burns's  Holy  Willie  is  no  fair  sample;  besides,  Willie's  trouble 
was  not  hypocrisy,  but  pride.  There  is  nothing  perverse  or  unusual  about  the 
legal  phases  of  the  blue  laws,  nor  nearly  as  much  as  we  once  thought  is  per- 
verse in  the  moral  phases. 

The  Puritans  were  strict  Sabbatarians  because  they  felt  strongly  that  the 
Catholics  from  whom  they  were  revolting  had  profaned  the  Sabbath  by  letting 
all  sorts  of  worldly  activities  go  on  then,  by  making  it  into  what  in  English  is 
now  called  a  holiday,  instead  of  making  it  what  God  meant  it  to  be,  a  holyday. 
Much  of  the  rest  of  their  prohibitions  are  a  defiance  of  the  old  nobility  against 
whom  also  they  were  in  revolt.  Their  simple  clothes,  their  dull,  somber  colors, 
their  short-cropped  hair,  their  avoidance  of  the  dance,  music  (save  for  hymns, 
in  which  the  modern  psychologist  might  say  they  found  an  outlet  for  much 
that  was  otherwise  repressed) ,  the  drama,  all  are  protests  against  the  con- 
spicuous consumption  of  an  upper  class.  These  prohibitions,  and  the  deep 
Puritan  distrust  of  the  arts  in  particular,  no  doubt  have  deeper  roots  than  this 

11  Richard  Brathwait,  Barnabae  Itinerarium:  Barnabee's  Journall,  ed.  by  D.  B.  Thomas, 
London,  Penguin  Press,  1932,  p.  17.  Brathwaifs  Latin  (p.  16)  is  better: 

Veni  Banbery,  O  prophanum! 

Ubi  vidi  Puritanwn, 

Felem  facientem  furem, 

Quid  Sabbatho  stravit  Murem. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

protest  against  an  old  nobility  and  an  old,  and  by  the  sixteenth  century  very 
much  painted  and  adorned,  church;  but  the  protest,  the  inevitable  human 
version  of  Hegel's  dialectic,  is  there. 

The  other  roots  are  no  doubt  many  as  well  as  deep,  not  altogether  ex- 
posed in  their  entirety  even  by  psychoanalysis.  Macaulay's  well-known  epi- 
gram that  the  Puritans  stopped  bearbaiting  in  England  when  they  were  in 
power,  not  because  it  gave  pain  to  the  bear,  but  because  it  gave  pleasure  to 
the  spectators  is  true — a  bit  over  half  true,  anyway — but  not  just.  The  Puri- 
tans shared  the  common  Western  acceptance  of  the  facts  of  pain  and  violence, 
an  acceptance  not  challenged  by  large  groups  in  the  West  much  before  the 
eighteenth  century.  You  cannot  expect  them  to  feel  for  the  bear.  As  for  the 
spectators,  the  Puritans  felt  that  they  were  demeaning  themselves  at  bear- 
baiting;  they  felt  that  this  was  a  low  pleasure,  and  they  did  not  hesitate  to  ban 
what  they  thought  to  be  low  pleasures.  There  were,  in  their  opinion,  many 
such,  though  the  long  list  of  them  comes  almost  wholly  under  a  broad  head  of 
long-recognized  vices,  or  temptations  to  vice — gambling,  drunkenness,  lewd- 
ness,  boasting,  conspicuous  consumption.  These  pleasures  all  seemed  to  them 
a  threat  to  what  they  valued  most  in  externals,  in  conduct — self-control. 

There  were,  however,  it  must  be  insisted,  allowable  pleasures  for  the 
Puritan.  He  did  not  approve  of  gluttony,  which  appears  in  the  sermons  along 
with  other  vices.  But  he  was  not  greatly  worried  over  it,  and  in  matters  of 
food  and  drink  he  favored  solid,  sound  fare  and  enough  of  it.  He  was  not 
notably  abstemious  if  his  digestion  was  good,  and  contrary  to  the  opinion  of 
the  young  of  the  1920's  his  digestion  often  was  good.  He  took  the  command- 
ment against  adultery  at  least  as  seriously  as  he  took  the  others,  but  within 
the  due  bounds  of  monogamous  marriage  there  is  no  evidence  that  he  felt 
about  sexual  intercourse  any  of  St.  Paul's  obvious  doubts.  The  empirical 
evidence  that  he  enjoyed  the  pleasures  of  the  bed  is  overwhelming,  especially 
for  the  American  Puritans,  for  whom  large  families  were  an  economic  asset. 
The  simpler  pleasures  of  life,  those  of  work,  good  health,  exercise,  the 
weather,  all  were  open  to  him;  if  you  are  going  to  make  much  of  Milton  the 
Puritan,  you  had  better  accept  the  poet  of  L*  Allegro  and  //  Penseroso  as  well 
as  the  poet  of  Paradise  Lost.  There  were  the  pleasures  of  the  mind,  for  though 
the  Puritans  were  by  no  means  all  intellectuals,  their  average  was  high;  they 
seem  often  to  have  found  pleasure  in  such  matters. 

But  they  did  not  like  Art.  They  closed  the  playhouses,  stopped  dancing 
on  the  green,  where  folk  habit  encouraged  warmly  boisterous  embraces,  or 
anywhere  else,  discouraged  the  arts  of  architecture  and  decoration  in  their 


The  Reformation 

barnlike  churches,  banished  for  a  time  all  music  but  the  pounding  hymns. 
This  bill  of  particulars  is  not  quite  fair,  but  it  is  true  enough  that  the  Puritan 
at  his  most  ardent  moments  distrusted  the  higher  pleasures  of  art  as  well  as 
the  lower  pleasures  of  the  flesh.  I  am  tempted  to  take  a  cue  from  Macaulay, 
and  note  that  what  the  Puritan  objected  to  was  not  art,  but  the  artist.  Not  all 
artists  had  by  the  seventeenth  century  become  deliberately,  and  certainly  had 
not  yet  become  commercially,  Bohemian.  Even  today,  there  is  an  occasional 
artist  or  poet  who  behaves  like  an  insurance  executive,  and  even  is  one.  We 
shall  come  to  this  revolt  of  the  artist  against  the  Philistine  again  with  the 
Romantics  of  the  nineteenth  century.  The  process  of  making  the  artist  dis- 
reputable had,  however,  begun,  and  had  gone  far  with  the  stage  and  was  visible 
in  the  studio,  and  in  most  un-Puritan  lands  like  Italy.  The  Puritan,  who  did 
not  like  disorder  and  what  he  thought  was  irresponsibility,  had  no  patience 
with  this  incipient  Bohemia.  The  artist  has  paid  him  back,  and  did  not  have 
to  wait  until  the  early  twentieth  century  for  his  revenge.  On  the  whole,  from 
Hudibras  on,  the  artists  of  the  word  have  been  harsh  on  the  Puritan.  Butler 
on  the  Puritans  already  sounds  like  the  emancipated  readers  of  Mencken: 

Compound  for  sins  they  are  inclin'd  to 
By  damning  those  they  have  no  mind  to: 
Still  so  perverse  and  opposite, 
As  if  they  worshipp'd  God  for  spite.12 

The  hangers-on  of  the  world  of  art,  the  social  environment  in  which  it 
thrived,  also  struck  deep  into  the  hates  and  fears  of  the  Puritan.  The  English 
stage  had  produced  the  immortal  Shakespeare,  but  even  if  the  Puritan  had 
been  able  to  understand  and  accept  the  un-Christian  realism  of  Shakespeare, 
what  he  could  not  stomach  was  the  easygoing  manners  and  morals  of  the  play- 
house, audience  as  well  as  actors.  As  for  the  fine  arts,  they  were  in  the  Puri- 
tan's mind  indelibly  associated  with  the  old  church  and  the  old  nobility,  both 
of  which  he  had  rejected.  Still,  no  doubt  one  must  try  to  get  at  the  something 
else  in  the  Puritan  that  made  him  distrust,  perhaps  fear,  the  arts.  We  are  back 
again  at  the  inner-directed  man,  fearful,  above  all,  of  loss  of  self-control, 
aware  that  this  world  is  full  of  temptation,  indeed,  taught,  and  believing,  that 
such  temptation  is  no  working  out  of  natural  sequences,  but  the  direct,  ever- 
present  intervention  of  the  Devil  himself,  whose  eye,  like  God's,  is  ever  on 
the  sparrow  though  with  very  different  aims.  I  have  said  above  (p.  155)  that 
much  would  look  very  different  to  us  if  we  really  thought,  with  the  first  Chris- 
is  Samuel  Butler,  Hudibras,  Part  I,  Canto  I,  lines  213-216. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

tians,  that  the  world  would  end  tomorrow  or  the  next  day.  It  would  surely  also 
look  very  different  to  us  if  we  felt  every  time  we  had  even  a  slight  fantasy  of 
doing  something  not  approved  by  our  conscience— our  superegos,  if  you  like 
— that  the  fantasy  in  itself  was  a  sign  that  we  were  likely  to  spend  eternity  in 
fearful  suffering.  I  am  not  maintaining  that  this  belief  of  the  Puritan  was  a 
reasonable  belief,  nor  even  that  it  was  a  useful  belief,  but  merely  that,  given 
the  Puritan's  cultural  inheritance,  it  is  an  understandable  belief,  indeed,  I 
fear  I  must  say,  a  "natural"  belief. 

The  lover  of  the  high  arts  may  still  not  be  satisfied.  Is  not  the  Puritan's 
fear  of  art  really  pretty  perverse  at  bottom,  for  do  we  not  all  know  that  high 
art,  great  art,  is  catharsis,  an  emptying  of  the  soul  of  pettiness  and  evil,  an 
elevating  thing?  Low  art  may  stir  the  genitals,  but  high  art,  though  perhaps 
only  a  John  Mill  would  hold  that  it  achieves  a  happy  spiritual  castration  of 
the  rapt  appreciator,  still  has  to  the  genitals  a  relation  that  can  only  be  de- 
scribed in  terms  like  transcendence,  sublimation,  ennoblement.  Perhaps 
Dante,  for  one,  knew  better;  or  were  Paolo  and  Francesca  reading  a  work  of 
low  art  that  day?  As  always  in  this  obstinate  world — obstinate  to  the  work  of 
the  simplifying  systematist — both  sides  can  appeal  to  the  "facts."  It  is  very 
hard  to  imagine  anyone  led  astray  from  even  Puritan  morality  by  Oedipus 
Rex.  But  Tristan  und  Isolde?  Give  the  Puritan  his  premises,  and  he  has  a  case. 

Still  another  major  interpretation  of  the  Puritan  ideal  demands  our  atten- 
tion. Erich  Fromm,  who  knows  both  the  Marxist-Weber  literature  and  the 
Freudian,  holds  that  the  way  of  life  that  came  out  of  the  Protestant  Reforma- 
tion puts  too  great  a  strain  on  ordinary  human  nature.13  The  Reformation,  he 
maintains,  broke  down  the  complex  medieval  network  of  social,  economic, 
and  religious  institutions,  ritual,  and  beliefs  which  combined  to  give  the  indi- 
vidual some  material  security  and  much  spiritual  security.  The  ordinary  man 
in  the  Middle  Ages  knew  where  he  stood,  had,  so  to  speak,  to  make  to  a 
minimum  extent  the  kind  of  decision  that  puts  a  strain  on  him.  In  Riesman's 
terms,  he  was  "tradition-directed."  Then  Luther  and  the  rest  of  the  reformers 
came  along,  working,  it  is  true,  in  consonance  with  changes  in  the  mode  of 
production,  and  emancipated  the  individual  from  all  or  at  least  a  great  many 
of  these  restraints.  They  freed  him.  But  to  the  psychologist  looking  back  on 
the  situation,  it  seems  clear  that  for  most  men  these  medieval  ways  had  been 
not  so  much  restraints  as  supports.  Such  men  did  not  really,  in  their  uncon- 
scious, want  to  be  free.  To  the  sturdy,  and  exceptional,  Protestant  individ- 

13  Erich  Fromm,  Escape  from  Freedom,  New  York,  Farrar  and  Rinehart,  1941. 


The  Reformation 

ualist,  Lutheran  doctrines  such  as  justification  by  faith  and  the  "priesthood 
of  the  believer"  were  challenges  to  do  his  best  in  this  world  without  the 
priest's  "interference,"  to  work  hard,  to  face  the  need  to  make  decisions  on 
his  own,  to  be  in  matters  of  the  spirit  as  well  as  in  matters  of  business  his  own 

But  the  majority  proved  incapable  of  this  exacting  way  of  life.  In  purely 
economic  terms,  they  had  to  put  up  with  what  amounted  to  exploitation  by 
the  stronger.  It  took  a  long  time,  and  presocialist  and  socialist  effort,  before 
the  workers  once  more  could  be  organized.  Psychologically,  as  well  as  institu- 
tionally, no  really  adequate  substitute  for  the  assurances  that  the  medieval 
synthesis  gave  ordinary  men  was  worked  out  in  the  West,  with  the  result  that 
in  our  own  times  the  masses  "escaped  from  freedom"  into  the  arms  of  the 
totalitarian  dictators  of  Right  and  Left,  We  shall  have  to  face  this  problem  of 
the  moral  difficulties  of  modern  libertarian  democracy  in  a  later  chapter. 
Most  of  us  today,  however,  touched  as  we  all  are  by  some  popular  versions 
of  psychology,  are  more  likely  to  think  of  Protestantism  in  its  active  Puritan 
form  in  the  seventeenth  century  as  suppressing,  not  liberating,  as  putting  on 
restraints,  self-imposed  by  the  good  Puritan  on  himself,  and,  through  blue 
laws,  imposed  on  others.14  Yet  the  psychological  interpretation  is  not  here 
inconsistent;  for  the  good  Frommian,  the  artificial  and  harsh  external  re- 
straints of  later  capitalist  Puritanism  were  made  necessary  in  part  by  the 
earlier  loss  to  Luther  and  his  allies  of  the  natural  and  accepted  supports  which 
the  old  institutions  and  beliefs  once  gave  the  now-unsupported  individual. 
Whether  the  new  harsh  codes  were  imposed  by  the  Puritan  on  himself  by  his 
conscience  or  on  the  others  by  laws  and  institutions,  the  net  result  was  that 
natural  psychic  drives  or  energies,  driven  back  into  the  unconscious,  took  all 
sorts  of  revenges  in  psychoses,  neuroses,  maladjustments  that  had  piled  up  to 
plague  us  now.  We  must  then  ask  the  question:  Is  it  sensible  to  apply  modern 
notions  of  "repression"  and  its  evil  consequences  to  our  classical  Puritan? 

The  question  cannot  be  satisfactorily  answered.  The  relativist  that  dwells 
in  every  historian,  comfortably  or  not,  must  insist  that  all  modern  psycho- 
logical theories  or  doctrines  may  turn  out  to  be  quite  impermanent,  that  it  is 
absurd  to  apply  to  the  seventeenth  century  the  fashionable  ideas  of  the  twen- 
tieth, and  so  on*  And  it  is  true  that  one  can  hardly  imagine  a  seventeenth- 

14 1  use  "blue  laws"  as  a  handy  American  term  for  all  the  complex  Puritan  attempts  to 
"legislate  private  virtue."  The  reader  should  be  warned  that  to  the  purist  in  matters 
historical  the  phrase  means  only  a  specific  set  of  laws  in  seventeenth-century  Connecti- 
cut See  W.  R  Prince,  "Peter's  Blue  Laws/'  American  Historical  Association,  Report, 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

century  Puritan  on  a  modern  psychoanalyst's  couch.  We  shall  never  know 
what  horrors  of  infantile  experience  lay  behind  Oliver  Heywood's  self- 

Oh  my  Lord,  I  am  here  at  Thy  footstool,  a  worthless  worm,  an  unprofitable 
branch,  a  sinful  wretch,  fit  for  nothing  but  to  be  cast  out  as  unsavory  salt.15 

At  the  very  start,  it  may  be  urged  that  the  problem  is  unreal.  The  Puritan, 
it  may  be  argued,  was  not  suppressing,  but  merely  "controlling."  Now  that 
the  first  wave  of  popularized  Freudiamsm  has  receded,  we  do  not  regard  any 
and  all  interference  with  the  child's,  let  alone  the  adult's,  wishes  to  be  sup- 
pression, and  bad.  We  guide,  control,  even  punish.  There  is  a  familiar 
semantic  situation  here,  the  complete  clearing  up  of  which  would  be  difficult 
indeed:  "suppression"  will  for  a  long  time  not  lose  for  us  its  pejorative  sense. 
Even  so,  I  must  insist  that  at  least  for  such  periods  of  Puritan  dominance  as 
the  1640*s  in  Britain,  the  rule  of  the  saints  in  Geneva  and  in  New  England, 
and  within  the  congregations  themselves  for  much  of  these  early  centuries  of 
the  Reformation,  "suppression"  is  the  accurate,  the  necessary  word.  American 
traditions  about  early  New  England,  molded  still  more  by  The  Scarlet  Letter 
and  its  like  than  by  the  debunkers  of  the  1920's,  are  not  altogether  mislead- 
ing; the  Puritans  said  No.  Calvin's  own  Geneva  was  so  fully  regulated  that 
one  wonders  how  even  the  political  theorists  could  have  dug  libertarian 
influences  out  of  pristine  Calvinism.  Here  is  a  recent  popular  historian's 

To  regulate  lay  conduct  a  system  of  comiciliary  visits  was  established:  one 
or  another  of  the  elders  visited,  yearly,  each  house  in  the  quarter  assigned  to  him, 
and  questioned  the  occupants  on  all  phases  of  their  lives.  Consistory  and  Council 
joined  in  the  prohibition  of  gambling,  card-playing,  profanity,  drunkenness,  the 
frequenting  of  taverns,  dancing  (which  was  then  enhanced  by  kisses  and  embraces) , 
indecent  or  irreligious  songs,  excess  in  entertainment,  extravagance  in  living,  im- 
modesty in  dress.  The  allowable  color  and  quantity  of  clothing,  and  the  number 
of  dishes  permissible  at  a  meal,  were  specified  by  law.  Jewelry  and  lace  were 
frowned  upon.  A  woman  was  jailed  for  arranging  her  hair  to  an  immoral  height. 
Theatrical  performances  were  limited  to  religious  plays,  and  then  these  too  were 
forbidden.  Children  were  to  be  named  not  after  saints  in  the  Catholic  calendar 
but  preferably  after  Old  Testament  characters;  an  obstinate  father  served  four 
days  in  prison  for  insisting  on  naming  his  son  Claude  instead  of  Abraham.  Cen- 
sorship of  the  press  was  taken  over  from  Catholic  and  secular  precedents,  and 

w  Oliver  Heywood,  quoted  in  W.  Notestein,  Four  Worthies,  New  Haven,  Yale  Uni- 
versity Press,  1957,  p.  214.  The  whole  essay  on  Heywood  is  worth  reading  as  a  good 
sampling  of  the  minor  Puritan  divine.  Heywood's  language  is  the  then-fashionable 


The  Reformation 

enlarged  (1560) :  books  of  erroneous  religious  doctrine,  or  of  immoral  tendency, 
were  banned;  Montaigne's  Essays  and  Rousseau's  Entile  were  later  to  fall  under 
this  proscription.  To  speak  disrespectfully  of  Calvin  or  the  clergy  was  a  crime. 
A  first  violation  of  these  ordinances  was  punished  with  a  reprimand,  further  viola- 
tion with  fines,  persistent  violation  with  imprisonment  or  banishment.  Fornication 
was  to  be  punished  with  exile  or  drowning;  adultery,  blasphemy,  or  idolatry,  with 
death.  In  one  extraordinary  instance  a  child  was  beheaded  for  striking  its 

This  would  seem  to  be  almost  the  opposite  of  "freedom"  in  any  sense, 
except  for  the  few  who  made  and  enforced  the  laws.  It  is  not  that  in  ordinary 
Protestant  societies  the  individual  was  left,  in  the  sense  the  philosophical 
anarchist  gives  the  word,  "free";  it  is,  rather,  that  for  the  old  medieval  set 
of  conformities  there  was  substituted  in  Protestant  countries  a  new  one,  one 
which  in  the  Calvinist  range  of  Protestantism  was  a  great  deal  stricter,  more 
repressive  of  ordinary  human  drives,  than  the  old  had  been.  The  question  then 
becomes:  Was  the  new  nexus  of  controls  unsuited  to  the  task  of  cementing 
a  going  society? 

In  its  extremist  forms  at  Geneva,  in  Holland,  in  New  England,  in  the 
English  Puritan  Revolution,  I  think  the  answer  must  be  yes.  At  any  rate,  by 
pragmatic  test,  these  societies  in  their  strict  form  did  not  endure.  The  rule  of 
the  saints  at  its  fullest  anywhere  was  an  attempt  to  push  and  pull  poor  human 
beings  to  heights — and  they  are  heights,  not  depths — they  appear  to  the 
realistic  observer  not  to  have  been  designed  for.  The  rule  of  the  saints  I  have 
elsewhere  classified  with  the  rule  of  the  Jacobins  and  of  the  "old"  Bolsheviks, 
as  the  effort  under  the  pricks  of  an  active  religious  drive  to  make  this  earth 
some  kind  of  a  heaven.17  As  the  Puritan  drive  slowly  subsided,  as  the  greatly 
moderated  Calvinist  groups  became  part  of  conventional  Western  society, 
the  moral  implications  of  their  way  of  life  change.  To  these  we  must  come 
later,  for  they  set  their  stamp — no  longer  by  any  means  quite  the  stamp  of 
Calvin  himself — on  a  great  deal  of  the  nineteenth-century  West,  and  in 
particular  on  the  English-speaking  parts  of  the  West. 

But  even  at  the  height  of  their  drive  to  their  ideal,  there  is  no  clear  evi- 
dence that  Calvinism  "produced"  more  of  what  we  call  mental  disturbances 
than  earlier  phases  of  Western  society.  I  do  not  think  that  Oliver  Heywood 
was  insane,  or  even  neurotic.  Statistics,  as  I  have  had  to  remark  often,  are 
just  not  good  enough  to  test  so  woolly  a  thesis  as  that  Puritan  suppressions 

i*  Will  Durant,  The  Reformation,  New  York,  Simon  &  Schuster,  1957,  p.  474. 

"  See  my  The  Anatomy  of  Revolution,  New  York,  Norton,  1938;  in  Vintage  Books, 

New  York,  Knopf,  1957,  especially  Chap.  VH. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

produced  mental  disturbances  on  a  large  scale.  For  one  thing,  since  they  were 
small  societies,  for  the  most  part,  and  men  are  mobile,  the  most  recalcitrant 
could  and  did  escape,  in  New  England  to  life  among  the  Indians  of  the 
frontier,  in  Europe  to  neighboring  lands.  For  another,  we  must  remember 
the  vulgar  German  proverb  "The  soup  is  never  eaten  as  hot  as  it  is  cooked." 
The  Americans  of  the  1920's  were  not  the  first  "scofflaws"  under  this  kind  of 
prohibition;  even  at  Geneva,  one  could  commit  adultery,  and  procreate 
bastards;  in  England,  a  large  country  for  those  days,  traces  of  Merry  England 
survived  here  and  there  all  through  the  Puritan  revolution.  It  is  impossible, 
save  in  inverted  Utopias  like  Brave  New  World  and  7  954,  to  repress  all  of  the 
people  all  of  the  time. 

In  summary,  the  Puritan  ideal,  even  when  pushed  into  fanaticism,  is  at 
the  very  least  one  of  the  fascinating  efforts  human  beings  have  made  to  tame 
themselves.  The  romanticist  is  no  doubt  right:  we  are  indeed  wild  animals, 
barely  domesticated  enough  to  keep  our  species  going.  But  the  dream  of  an 
ordered  society  keeps  recurring,  spurs  men  on  to  transcend  themselves  and 
history.  Puritanism  is  by  no  means  the  harshest  of  these  dreams,  and,  in  its 
effort  to  make  itself  real,  by  no  means  the  least  effective.  Liberal  cant  in  this 
country,  which  has  shut  so  many  off  from  so  wide  an  area  of  human  experi- 
ence ("the  liberal  is  a  man  who  will  not  read  anything  he  is  going  to  disagree 
with"),  has  been  especially  unfair  toward  the  Puritans.  They  deserve  better 
from  us;  we  can  perhaps  learn  from  them  almost  as  much  from  the  Zuni,  the 
Hopi,  or  the  Samoans. 


Puritanism,  Calvinism,  though  I  believe  they  are  central  to  the  moral 
experience  of  Protestantism,  by  no  means  exhaust  the  varieties  of  such  experi- 
ence to  be  found  in  the  Reformation.  Once  more  using  a  convenient  if  imper- 
fect dualism,  we  may  distinguish  between  "hard"  and  "soft"  Protestantism, 
or,  indeed,  Christianity.  This  distinction  is  not  by  any  means  that  suggested  by 
Paul's  contrast  of  Letter  and  Spirit,  nor  that  between  staying  in  this  world  and 
fleeing  from  it,  nor  is  it  quite  that  between  the  organizer  (Gregory  the  Great, 
Bernard  of  Clairvaux)  and  the  withdrawn  mystic  (St.  John  of  the  Cross). 
The  soft  Protestant  is  no  wastrel,  nor  is  he  by  any  means  a  rationalist.  But  he 
shies  off  from  the  harsher  and  more  aristocratic  doctrines  of  Calvinism — 
unconditional  predestination,  not  to  speak  of  such  refinements  as  infant 
damnation,  restriction  of  God's  grace  to  a  very  few  elect,  and  the  Stoic  bearing 
that  goes  with  Puritan  dignity.  Though  they  flourished  more  particularly  in 


The  Reformation 

the  eighteenth  century,  the  origins  of  these  softer  Protestants  go  back  to  the 
very  beginnings  of  Protestantism.  Already  in  the  sixteenth  century,  Merino 
Simons,  founder  of  the  Mennonites,  anticipates  much  with  his  doctrine  of  a 
"new  birth,"  itself  a  signal  of  salvation.  German  Pietists,  British  Methodists, 
French  Quietists — the  latter  formally  Catholics,  but  hardly  orthodox — are 
almost  always  on  the  soft  side  of  the  line.  The  Quakers,  those  peculiar  people, 
have  their  soft  affiliations,  conspicuously  in  their  pacifism  and  their  escha- 
that  their  emotions  were  not  those  of  the  romanticist  in  revolt.  They  were 
optimistic  and  truly  democratic  Calvinists,  as  in  a  sense  they  are.  But  the 
taxonomy  of  Protestant  sects  is  a  bewildering  task.  The  Methodists  had  their 
Calvinist  wing,  and  they,  the  Baptists,  and  other  sects  were,  in  matters  of 
private  morality,  drink,  dancing,  card-playing,  often  quite  as  "puritanical" 
as  the  saints  had  been.  The  Bible  was  their  common  source  book.  They  did 
not  precisely  welcome  the  Age  of  Reason.  They,  and  not  Yankee  Congrega- 
tionalists,  and  certainly  not  Boston  Unitarians,  are  in  twentieth-century 
America  the  last  of  the  Puritans. 

Positively,  these  softer  Protestants  do  have  in  common  an  acceptance  of 
some  form  of  the  doctrine  of  free  will,  and  at  least  a  tendency  toward,  if  not 
precisely  universalism — each  sect  believed  firmly  it  was  the  true  form  of 
Christianity — at  least  a  belief  that  God  had  basically  good  intentions  toward 
the  human  race  and  would  welcome  a  significant  increase  in  the  number  of 
the  saved.  What  they  have  most  conspicuously  in  common  is  an  emotional  pi- 
ety which  in  their  meetings  might  rise  to  the  excitements  their  enemies  of  the 
Age  of  Reason  regarded  as  indecent,  and  described  with  the  horrid  word  "en- 
thusiasm." They  were  not  for  the  most  part  wild  men,  however,  and  it  is  clear 
that  their  emotions  were  not  those  of  the  romanticist  in  revolt.  They  were 
simple  people,  mostly  from  the  humbler  ranks  of  society  both  in  Britain  and 
in  Germany,  and  in  the  North  American  colonies.  Lecky  thought  that  the 
Methodist  movement  in  Britain  probably  saved  that  country  from  grave 
difficulties  with  its  lower  classes,  who  had  to  bear  the  brunt  of  the  Industrial 
Revolution;  the  miners,  the  workers  in  the  new  industrial  towns,  the  deprived 
village  laborers,  found  in  the  sharing  of  religious  emotions,  in  the  whole 
conservative  fabric  of  Methodism,  a  satisfaction  that  saved  them  from  the 
allurements  of  French-inspired  revolutionaries.  This  thesis  was  expanded 
and  extended  by  the  French  historian  Elie  Halevy.18 

18  W.  E.  H.  Lecky,  A  History  of  England  in  the  Eighteenth  Century,  New  York,  Apple- 
ton,  1888,  Vol.  H,  pp.  691-692;  Elie  Halevy,  A  History  of  the  English  People  in  the 
Nineteenth  Century,  London,  Benn,  1949,  Vol.  I,  England  in  1815,  pp.  424-428.  Lecky 
could  hardly  have  picked  up  the  Marxist  tag  about  "opium  of  the  people,"  and  Halevy 
no  longer  needed  it 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

Though  the  pietistic  sects  attracted  a  by  no  means  negligible  number 
of  the  evangelically  inclined  among  the  educated  classes — Wesley  was  an 
Oxford  man,  and  Zinzendorf  a  count — they  must  be  numbered  among  those 
who  have  pushed  Christianity  away  from  the  intellect  and  toward  the  emo- 
tions. Their  theology  was  relatively  simple,  their  clergy  often  uneducated,  and 
their  distrust  of  the  highly  educated  great  indeed.  But  this  very  anti-intel- 
lectualism  helped  them  resist  much  more  successfully  than  did  the  hard 
Protestants  the  pressures  of  the  Enlightenment.  The  Puritans'  contempt  for 
the  damned  of  this  world,  their  self-insulation  from  common  sense,  their 
intense  desire  to  remake  human  conduct,  would  seem  on  the  surface  to  be 
more  proof  against  the  natural  science,  the  rationalism  fondly  supposing  itself 
common  sense,  the  often  sincere  belief  in  toleration  of  the  Enlightenment, 
than  would  the  gentle  piety  of  the  Methodists  and  Pietists.  And  no  doubt  in 
its  first  fire,  its  active  stage,  Puritanism  was  quite  safe  from  pure  rationalism. 
But  the  Puritan  was  essentially  an  intellectual;  he  had  to  think,  to  understand, 
and  his  warfare  with  himself  was  in  part  the  war  of  the  head  with  the  heart. 
When  the  active  phase  of  Puritanism  was  over,  its  prosperous  third  and  fourth 
generations,  no  longer  driven  to  bring  heaven  to  earth,  began  the  process  of 
reconciliation  with  this  earth  as  it  stood,  a  reconciliation  that  brought  some  of 
them  to  Unitarianism  or  freethinking.  The  intellectual  history  of  Boston  is  an 
excellent  illustration  of  this  movement. 

Not  so  with  the  pietist  sects.  They  not  only  resisted  the  rationalist  current 
of  the  Age  of  Reason;  they  for  the  most  part  also  resisted  the  closely  inter- 
flowing current  of  sentimental  humanitarianism.  They  damped  the  hell-fires 
a  bit,  but  they  did  not  extinguish  them.  They  worked  with  the  poor,  the 
unhappy,  the  wicked,  and  welcomed  their  conversion  or  even  their  reforma- 
tion, but  they  did  not  altogether  equate  sin  with  a  bad  socio-economic  environ- 
ment. In  fact,  they  believed  in  original  sin,  not  in  the  natural  goodness  and/ 
or  reasonableness  of  man.  The  intellectuals  have  not  much  liked  them.  They 
are  not  very  exciting,  but  they  were  numerous,  and  perhaps  a  useful  brake 
on  our  madly  progressing  modern  world.  They  are  still  with  us,  almost  wholly 
apart  from  the  intellectuals,  almost  wholly,  as  real  living  persons,  unknown 
to  the  intellectuals. 

Protestant  tradition,  naturally  enough,  has  held  that  the  Reformation  re- 
formed, that  human  conduct  improved  under  Protestant  successes,  that  even 
the  Catholics,  tardily  learning  a  needed  lesson,  put  their  house  in  somewhat 


The  Reformation 

better  order  in  what  the  Protestants  call  the  "Counter  Reformation."  The 
freethinkers  of  the  Enlightenment  had  a  bit  more  trouble  in  estimating  the 
moral  value  of  the  Reformation.  They  felt  that  the  Protestants  had  at  least 
been  an  entering  wedge  for  the  Enlightenment,  and  they  discerned  in  Protes- 
tant attacks  on  Romish  superstition  and  corruption  much  of  their  own  senti- 
ments; still,  they  could  and  did  read,  and  they  realized  that  early  Protes- 
tantism was  Christian,  in  fact,  superstition.  And,  of  course,  debunking  has 
been  long  an  irresistible  temptation  to  all  sorts  of  historians,  including  the 
Enlightened.  We  may  then  start  with  some  of  these  doubts  about  the  reforms 
of  the  Reformation. 

The  complex  most  consonant  with  the  temper  of  our  age  goes  back  at  least 
to  William  Cobbett,  a  testy  radical  journalist  of  early  nineteenth-century 
England,  who  wrote  a  history  of  the  Reformation  in  England.19  Cobbett  has 
been  expanded  and  extended  by  the  positivists,  by  the  Marxists,  by  Weber, 
Tawney,  and  Fromm,  and,  naturally  enough  but  perhaps  not  altogether 
wisely  in  such  company,  by  Catholics.  At  its  broadest,  this  line  of  attack 
maintains  that  Protestantism  substituted  for  the  communally  responsible 
medieval  society  with  its  guilds,  its  organized  charities,  its  notions  of  a  "just 
price,"  its  obligation  to  make  life  as  secure  as  possible  even  for  the  poor,  the 
modern  unrestrained  scramble  for  wealth.  Released  from  these  good  medieval 
Catholic  Christian  restraints,  the  followers  of  the  reformers,  above  all,  the 
new  modern  territorial  rulers  and  their  hangers-on,  grabbed  all  they  could, 
no  matter  who  suffered.  Henry  VIII  in  England  suppressed  the  monasteries 
and  confiscated  their  wealth,  which  he  used  to  reward  his  courtiers  and  build 
up  to  support  his  own  upstart  dynasty  the  nouveau  riche  Tudor  nobility  and 
gentry  who  we  mistakenly  think  were  real  nobles  of  Norman  lineage.  The 
German  princelets,  the  Dutch  burghers,  all  got  their  share  of  the  spoils,  and 
the  French  Huguenot  nobles  would  have  got  theirs  if  they  could — obviously 
it  was  hope  of  spoils  that  attracted  them  to  the  Calvinist  allegiance. 

The  new  rich,  the  attack  continues,  in  spite  of  their  canting  Protestantism, 
which  did  not  last  very  long  anyway,  conducted  themselves  in  matters  of 
private  morality  at  least  as  badly  as  the  rich  usually  do.  Public  morality  in 
politics,  already  undermined  by  the  unscrupulous  power  politics  of  the  Italian 
Renaissance,  was  surely  not  improved  in  the  North  by  the  Reformation. 

i*  A  History  of  the  Protestant  Reformation  in  England  and  Ireland:  Showing  How  That 
Event  Has  Impoverished  and  Degraded  the  Main  Body  of  the  People  in  Those  Conn- 
tries.  In  a  Series  of  Letters,  Addressed  to  All  Sensible  and  Just  Englishmen,  London, 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

Public  morality  in  economic  life,  as  we  have  noted,  was,  according  to  this 
thesis,  greatly  worsened.  Now  the  limits  were  off  in  competition,  and  the  Devil 
took  the  hindmost.  The  new  wealth  came  from  commerce  and  investment,  not 
primarily  from  land;  its  possessors  lacked  the  steadying  customary  morality 
and  the  sense  of  duty  to  their  dependents  that  the  old  class  had  had.  "As  truth 
spread,"  wrote  J.  A.  Froude,  "charity  and  justice  languished  in  England."20 

There  are  two  obvious  criticisms  to  be  made  of  this  general  thesis.  First, 
and  simpler,  is  the  criticism  we  have  already  made  of  the  Weber  thesis,  that 
whatever  the  facts  of  change  from  the  medieval  way  of  life  to  the  modern — 
and  these  facts  are  no  doubt  partly  those  of  an  expanding  economy,  and  the 
transfer  of  the  agon,  the  competitive  spirit,  from  the  life  of  the  knight  and 
the  cleric  to  the  life  of  the  courtier  allied  with  new  capitalistic  wealth — 
these  changes  greatly  antedated  the  posting  of  Luther's  Ninety-five  Theses  in 
1517.  Protestantism  in  some  of  its  phases  was  part  of  these  changes,  and 
was  affected  and  made  possible  by  these  earlier  changes.  What  I  have  said  in 
comment  on  the  Weber  thesis  holds  for  this  extension  of  his  thesis:  unscrupu- 
lous "Renaissance"  politics  in  the  struggles  of  the  twelfth  and  thirteenth 
centuries  between  pope  and  emperor,  not  to  mention  the  Hundred  Years' 
War,  grave  neglect  of  the  poor  by  their  superiors,  clear  evidence  of  popular 
unrest  all  through  the  fourteenth  century,  beginnings  of  the  ejection  of  farming 
peasants  by  "capitalist"  landlords  anxious  to  make  more  money  by  sheep 
grazing  in  fifteenth-century  England,  very  modern  "class  struggle"  condi- 
tions, the  popolo  grasso  against  the  popolo  minuto,  the  revolt  of  the  ciompi 
in  the  Florentine  trecento — the  list  of  these  unidyllic  conflicts  of  the  "serene" 
Middle  Ages  could  be  long  indeed.21 

Second,  and  more  complicated,  there  is  the  criticism  based  on  doubts  as  to 
whether  there  was  in  fact  a  general  increase  in  conventional  immorality  among 
the  ruling  classes,  a  general  increase  in  suffering,  deprivation,  neglect,  among 
the  ruled.  We  shall  have  in  a  final  chapter  to  attempt  to  put  into  understand- 
able order  those  changes  in  actual  group  moral  standards  and  conduct  that 
we  can  roughly  establish.  There  are  such  changes,  but  they  will  probably  not 
turn  out  to  make  the  kind  of  sense  the  proponents  of  the  thesis  we  are  here 
commenting  on  try  to  make.  There  are  sudden  and  usually  impermanent  col- 
lective accesses  of  puritanical  conduct — the  brief  rule  of  Savonarola,  for 

20  Henry  VIII,  Vol.  I,  p.  74.  Even  though  Froude  was  a  Victorian  and  a  bitter  anti- 
Catholic,  I  suspect  there  is  irony  in  that  "truth.** 

21  For  the  Florentine  class  struggles,  see  Iris  Origo,  Merchant  of  Prato,  pp.  66-67. 


The  Reformation 

example.  There  are,  at  least  in  modern  times,  accesses  of  particularly  striking 
unpuritanical  conduct  among  those  who  can  afford  luxury,  often  reaction  to 
the  opposing  kind  of  excess,  such  as  the  period  of  the  Stuart  Restoration  in 
Britain  after  the  Puritan  Commonwealth.  There  are,  to  anticipate  a  bit,  all 
sorts  of  long  and  short  "cycles,"  varying  with  different  classes  or  other  groups 
of  a  given  society.  Ethics,  conduct,  morals  do  change  between  1250  and  1700, 
but  not  as  simply  as  the  critics  of  Protestant  morality  make  out. 

As  to  the  general  moral  level  of  those  who  could  afford  to  live  loosely — 
and  many  who  tried  to  live  as  their  betters  lived — Huizinga's  Waning  of  the 
Middle  Ages  shows  clearly  that  the  luxury,  the  overrefinement,  the  fascination 
with  death  and  corruption,  the  morbid  excesses  of  the  sixteenth  century  are 
all  present  in  the  fourteenth  and  fifteenth.  The  same  holds  true  of  the  suffer- 
ings of  the  poor,  and  of  the  relation  between  the  rich  and  the  poor.  This  last 
relation  was  never,  at  the  height  of  the  feudal-manorial  system,  one  of  mutual 
Christian  loving-kindness.  The  class  struggle,  which  the  Marxists  are  perfectly 
right  in  insisting  is  a  constant  of  Western  history,  was  intensified  and  made 
more  open,  but  not  by  the  Protestant  Reformation,  for  the  process  goes  back 
much  further  in  time.  Clearly,  individuals  and  sometimes  large  groups  did 
suffer  in  these  changes.  There  were  evicted  peasants,  victims  of  technological 
change,  victims  of  the  bitter  foreign  and  civil  wars,  which  also  antedate 
Protestantism,  though  here  they  are  clearly  stepped  up  by  the  new  hatreds 
Protestantism  brought  with  it.  But,  as  I  have  already  noted,  real  income,  even 
real  income  for  the  many,  the  "people,"  subject  to  the  ups  and  downs  of  a 
reasonably  free  market  economy  and  to  the  grave  local  shortages  inevitable 
in  those  days  of  primitive  transportation  and  primitive  economic  administra- 
tion and  no  doubt  to  many  other  variables,  has  been  going  up,  on  the  whole, 
ever  since  about  1000  A.D.  I  do  not  think  that  the  most  morally  outraged 
economic  historians  have  shown,  again  on  the  average  and  over  the  long 
run,  that  "workers,"  "proletarians,"  even  "peasants,"  any  "lower  class,"  has 
been  wholly  excluded  at  any  time  from  at  least  a  share  of  this  increased  real 

But  has  not  one  of  the  marks  of  the  modern  world  been  the  unhappiness, 
the  discontentedness,  of  large  numbers  of  those  at  the  base  of  the  social 
pyramid?  Is  not  Fromm  perhaps  right,  after  all,  that  the  upshot  of  the  Protes- 
tant Reformation  has  been  to  leave  the  masses  forlorn,  spiritually  uprooted, 
victims  of  a  freedom  to  change  they  could  not  adapt  themselves  to,  mass 
men  deprived  of  all  that  makes  for  human  dignity?  The  broader  implications 
of  this  very  broad  generalization  we  must  face  in  a  later  chapter.  In  its  specific 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

application  to  the  Protestant  Reformation  I  think  the  thesis  cannot  be  well 
established,  and  certainly  needs  many  qualifications. 

First,  in  terms  of  charity,  seen  as  what  we  now  call  social  service,  the 
situation  was  not  nearly  as  bad  as  some  historians,  like  Cobbett  or  even 
Froude,  have  made  it  out  to  be.  Even  in  England,  the  Elizabethan  Poor  Law 
of  1601  is  merely  the  culmination  at  the  center  of  national  government  of  a 
long  process  whereby  the  secular  authority  took  over  the  major  share  of 
responsibility  for  those  we  nowadays  piously  and  democratically  call  the 
"wrtrferprivileged."  Once  more,  Puritanism  is  in  principle  harsh  and  disap- 
proving toward  the  poor.  Like  that  last  Puritan,  George  Bernard  Shaw,  most 
Puritans  felt  the  poor  must  be  undeserving  or  God  would  not  have  made  them 
poor  (for  Shaw,  it  was  lack  of  the  Life  Force  that  made  them  poor) .  But 
here  I  think  we  might  reverse  the  usual  order  of  the  puzzling  relation  between 
principle  and  practice;  the  Puritan  did  better  by  the  poor  than  his  preaching 
would  show.  I  grant  that  he  did  not  love  them  (does  anybody?),  but  he  did 
not  let  them  starve. 

Again,  over  the  whole  wide  range  of  Puritanism,  above  all,  in  its  less 
intense  forms,  it  can  be  argued  that  men  got  at  least  the  satisfaction  of  bring- 
ing the  ideal  and  the  real  into  closer  approximation  than  has  been  usual  in 
Christianity.  Grant  the  lapses  in  conduct  the  novelists  build  on,  grant  the 
aesthetic  poverty  of  the  ideal,  grant  much  of  all  the  anti-Puritans  say,  it  is 
still  true  that  Puritans  lived  in  communities  where  much  that  the  general  voice 
of  the  West  has  long  regarded  as  virtue  was  practiced,  where  much  that  that 
voice  has  regarded  as  vice  was  kept  at  a  minimum.  The  Puritan  way  of  life 
for  many  approximated  the  Puritan  ideal.  Plain,  not  ascetic,  living  was  the 
common  lot;  high  thinking,  exhortatory  and  introspective,  was  by  no  means 
an  uncommon  lot.  The  Puritan  was  far  too  self-conscious,  at  bottom  too 
touched  with  a  kind  of  rationalist  drive,  to  take  the  label  "primitive";  he  was 
not  even,  as  some  of  the  softer  eighteenth-century  humanitarians  became,  a 
conscious  seeker  after  a  primitive  past.  (The  Protestant  appeal  to  the  Bible 
and  to  "gospel  Christianity"  seems  to  me  by  no  means  genuine  primitivism 
even  in  groups  like  the  Mennonites  and  the  Quakers.)  But  the  Puritan  way  of 
life  does  have  analogies  with  that  of  simple,  well-disciplined,  tradition-directed 
societies,  where  from  top  to  bottom  there  is  no  luxurious  living,  no  con- 
spicuous consumption,  no  open  vices,  no  intellectual  vices  like  irony  and 

It  could  not — or,  at  any  rate,  it  did  not — last.  Puritanism  had  its  part  in 
the  Victorian  ideal  and  reality,  and  it  is  not  without  its  part  in  our  own  lives. 


The  Reformation 

But  the  Puritanism  of  the  seventeenth  century  has  ceased  to  live.  The  Marxist 
is  no  doubt,  as  usually,  at  least  partly  right;  the  very  productivity  of  a  Puritan 
society  was  bound  to  increase  wealth,  and  to  set  before  the  successful 
temptations  to  luxurious  living  they  could  not  withstand.  But  the  Puritan 
respect  for  education,  indeed,  for  the  life  of  the  intellect,  was  also  a  danger 
to  the  Puritan  way  of  life.  If  men's  "lower"  appetites  and  feelings  tend  to  lead 
them  to  the  vulgar  vices,  their  "higher"  intellectual  drives  tend  to  lead  them  to 
even  more  dangerous  and  more  varied  vices — to  originality,  to  the  high  disgust 
we  call  in  America  "liberalism,"  to  cleverness  and  irony,  to  that  attitude,  most 
objectionable  to  the  Puritan,  for  which  we  must,  since  it  is  usually  such  a 
thing,  use  the  sophomoric  word  "sophistication."  In  a  sense  most  important 
of  all,  in  the  specific  historical  situation  of  the  West  in  the  seventeenth  century, 
to  encourage  the  free  use  of  the  intellect — and  to  encourage  the  intellect  at  all 
is  to  tempt  it  to  free  thinking — meant  to  encourage  the  development  of 
modern  natural  science.  And,  again,  whatever  it  might  or  ought  to  have  done, 
natural  science  has  proved  in  fact  the  greatest  dissolvent  of  the  cosmology 
central  not  only  to  Puritanism  but  to  all  Christianity.  Perhaps  the  central 
element  of  the  "Protestant  ethic"  that  helped  make  our  world  of  mid-twentieth 
century  was  not  the  glorification  of  hard  work  and  of  worldly  success,  but  the 
glorification  of  the  intellect.  Plain  living  the  Puritan  could  often  stand  without 
yielding  to  temptation;  but  high  thinking  proved  too  much  for  him. 

We  may  use  a  more  concrete  and  perhaps  more  suggestive  metaphor.  The 
Puritan  society  was,  though  less  simply  so,  one  like  the  Spartan,  the  early 
Roman,  the  feudal  lords  of  the  early  Middle  Ages  in  some  of  their  aspects, 
a  society  of  lions.  But  the  Puritans,  though  they  disapproved  of  the  morals 
of  the  foxes,  were  not  without  some  admiration  for  the  brains  of  the  foxes; 
or,  as  some  might  prefer  to  put  it,  the  Puritans  themselves  as  men  of  business, 
the  men  Weber  depicts,  and  finally  as  men  of  politics,  were  themselves  foxes. 
In  the  human,  if  not  in  the  animal  world,  the  fox  ultimately  destroys  the 


To  return  to  our  starting  point,  whatever  its  ramifications  in  politics  and 
economics,  the  Reformation  of  the  sixteenth  century,  both  Protestant  and 

22  The  metaphor  is  Machiavellf  s.  It  is  developed  at  length  by  Pareto,  whose  lions  are 
conservative,  tradition-directed  aristocrats  guided  by  sentiments  he  calls  "residues  of 
persistent  aggregates,"  whose  foxes  are  innovating,  clever,  unscrupulous  leaders  guided 
by  sentiments  he  calls  "residues  of  instincts  for  combinations,*'  It  is  hard  to  plunge 
into  Pareto;  but  see  bis  The  Mind  and  Society,  New  York,  Harcourt,  Brace,  1935,  para. 
2178, 1480. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

Catholic,  was  in  the  minds  of  many  of  its  leaders,  and  their  followers,  too,  an 
effort  to  renew  the  moral  crusading  spirit  Christianity  is  born  with.  Some  of 
them — who  can  be  sure? — were  perhaps  inspired  by  a  stepping  up  of  that 
spirit  into  a  heresy  most  dangerous  and  yet  endemic  in  Christianity,  a  heresy 
deeper  even  than  Manichaean  dualism,  a  heresy  anticipating  that  of  the 
eighteenth-century  Enlightenment.  Some  of  them  may  have  hoped  to  destroy 
evil  on  earth,  to  "cure"  evil,  a  task  the  moral  realist  finds  as  meaningless  as 
the  physician  would  find  the  "curing"  of  death.  At  any  rate,  if  you  want  to 
measure  the  success  of  the  Reformation  by  the  degree  to  which  it  turned  all 
men  into  morally  perfect  beings,  you  can  say  quite  simply  that  the  Reforma- 
tion was  a  failure. 

If  you  take  a  modest  standard  and  ask  what  specific  reforms  were 
relatively  successful,  you  get  a  different  answer.  Much  that  outraged  the 
reformers  in  the  church  of  the  late  fifteenth  century  was  ended,  and  has 
never  come  back  in  so  scandalous  a  form.  The  Catholic  Reformation  was  a 
striking  success.  The  Roman  papal  court  that  so  shocked  Luther,  and  not 
only  Luther,  has  never  returned.  It  is  no  doubt  impossible,  and  perhaps 
undesirable,  to  eliminate  entirely  the  politician  from  the  ecclesiastical  adminis- 
trator; but  the  vices  symbolized  for  us  all  by  the  Borgias  cannot  possibly 
persist  for  long  in  any  Christian  clergy,  and  they  have  not  persisted  at  Rome. 
The  Catholic  Reformation  was  a  renewal  all  along  the  line,  renewal  of  mis- 
sionary zeal  as  the  geographical  discoveries  opened  up  new  worlds,  renewal 
of  organized  social  work  as  new  orders  filled  with  charitable  zeal  were 
founded,  renewal  of  confidence  that  inspired  the  counterattack  so  successful 
in  Central  and  Eastern  Europe.  There  were  relapses,  even  among  the  clergy, 
as  the  Enlightenment  brought  temptations  of  a  different  sort,  and  as  the  old 
ones  were,  at  least  for  the  upper  clergy,  renewed  in  an  atmosphere  like  that  of 
the  French  ancien  regime.  Yet  even  for  France,  the  state  of  the  church  in  1789 
does  not  look  to  modern  research  anywhere  nearly  as  bad  as  it  looked  to  the 
French  revolutionaries  and  their  faithful  historians — a  degree  of  indifference, 
yes,  much  ignorance  and  incompetence  among  the  poorly  paid  lower  clergy, 
but  nothing  like  the  fleshly  corruption  of  the  fifteenth  century.23 

This  Catholic  Reformation,  be  it  noted,  was  a  moral  reform  in  a  church 
that  at  the  Council  of  Trent  firmly  refused  to  change  its  theology  or  its  govern- 
ment Even  the  rather  extreme  extension  of  the  doctrine  of  good  works  which 

23  Pierre  de  la  Gorce,  Histoire  Religieuse  de  la  Revolution  Frangaise,  Paris,  Librairie 
Plon,  1925;  Andre  LatreiUe,  L'Eghse  Catholique  et  la  Revolution  Fran$aise,  Paris, 
Librairie  Hachette,  1946. 


The  Reformation 

had  started  Luther  off,  the  sale  of  indulgences,  was  corrected  in  practice  rather 
than  in  theory,  for  at  Trent  the  fathers  decided  that  there  was  indeed  a 
treasury  of  good  works  on  which  mortals  under  proper  conditions  might  draw. 
The  Catholic  Church  has  not  in  matters  of  ultimate  philosophical  concern 
been  quite  the  monolithic  survival  of  the  Middle  Ages  some  both  inside  and 
outside  it  like  to  maintain  it  has  been,  but  in  comparison  with  Protestantism 
it  has  certainly  resisted  the  later  complexes  of  heresies  I  shall  here  call  simply 
"optimistic-rationalist-humanitarian"  and  to  which  I  shall  shortly  return  in 
considering  the  Enlightenment  of  the  eighteenth  century. 

As  for  the  Protestants,  they,  too,  failed  to  cure  evil.  They  may,  as  a  man 
like  Tawney  thinks,  have  added  to  the  miseries,  and  the  relative  number,  of 
the  poor,  have  set  up  a  new  and  worse  Pharisaical  middle  class.  They  may 
have  added  to  the  number  of  what  the  modern  psychologist  would  consider 
the  unnecessarily  self-tortured.  They  may  have  condemned  many  a  fine  artist 
to  mute  ingloriousness  or  vain  rebellion.  They  may  have  been  most  respon- 
sible for  the  perhaps  dangerous  multiplicity  of  modern  Westerners  on  all 
matters  of  ultimate  philosophical  concern.  These  are  all  most  debatable 
propositions,  and  I  feel  wholly  justified  in  putting  them  in  the  conditional 
mood.  As  the  reader  will  know,  I  incline  to  think  that  in  all  these  matters  the 
requisition  against  Protestantism  has  been  drawn  up  too  strongly  in  recent 
years.  But  no  one  in  his  senses  will  accuse  the  Protestants  of  encouraging  the 
Borgias  in  their  midst.  The  Puritans,  in  fact,  were  for  the  most  part  reason- 
ably— sometimes  most  unreasonably — pure.  Even  the  conservative  estab- 
lished churches,  the  Anglican  and  the  Lutheran,  though  not  unfairly  accused 
of  Erastianism  at  times,  though  they  have  always  had  numerous  conven- 
tionally un-Christian  Christians,  have  also  never  been  conventionally  corrupt. 
To  a  Kierkegaard,  the  nineteenth-century  Lutheran  Church  was  truly  cor- 
rupt; but  Kierkegaard  was  sicker,  or  madder,  or  more  Godlike,  than  almost 
anyone  in  the  long  record  of  Christianity.  He  needed  (he  third-century  desert, 
but  had  only  nineteenth-century  Denmark.  To  all  but  the  Kierkegaards  and 
their  lesser  likes,  the  Protestant,  like  the  Catholic,  Reformation  was  a  true  re- 
form; in  both,  it  seems  likely  that  the  level  of  laymen's  conduct  was  raised 
somewhat;  in  both,  the  open  scandal  of  a  clergy  living  in  clear  and  simple  sins 
of  the  flesh  was  ended,  at  least  in  the  West. 


The  Renaissance 

If  ever  an  elite,  fully  conscious  of  its  own  merits,  sought  to  segregate  itself  from 
the  vulgar  herd  and  live  life  as  a  game  of  artistic  perfection,  that  was  the  circle 
of  choice  Renaissance  spirits.1 

ALL  CONCEPTS  OF  MORAL  EXCELLENCE  are  aristocratic,  for  their  holders 
know  well  that  the  many  do  not  live  up  to  them.  Even  the  most  innocent  of 
American  democrats  knows  that,  at  the  very  best,  most  of  the  people  have 
hitherto  been  fooled  most  of  the  time.  There  is,  however,  a  great  difference 
between  two  kinds  of  Western  aristocracies,  well  brought  out  in  the  contrast 
between  the  Renaissance  and  the  Reformation.  Huizinga  is  quite  right:  the 
choice  spirits  of  the  Renaissance,  the  men  of  virtu,  the  humanists,  the 
courtiers,  asked  only  that  the  many  not  trouble  them.  In  a  few  circles  like 
that  of  Pico  della  Mirandola  there  was  a  vague,  Platonic-Utopian  feeling  that 
the  whole  world  might  be  much  nicer  if  everyone  knew  Plato,  but  there  really 
was  no  true  reforming  zeal  in  these  people.  These  aristocrats  of  the  soul  and 
body  not  only  did  not  dream  of  making  the  many  into  men  of  virtu,  of  learn- 
ing, of  civility;  most  of  them  did  not  worry  at  all  about  the  conduct  of  the 
many,  as  long  as  they  were  not  themselves  interfered  with. 

The  Protestant  reformers,  more  particularly  at  the  Calvinist  center  of 
Protestantism,  were,  as  their  enemies  have  always  loved  to  point  out,  aris- 
tocrats, elitists,  spiritual  snobs.  The  elect  were  few,  and  knew  it;  the  damned 

i  Huizinga,  Homo  Ludens,  p.  180. 


The  Renaissance 

were  many,  and  were  kept  constantly  aware  of  their  unhappy  state  by  the  few 
saved.  Here,  put  with  no  real  malice  on  my  part,  is  the  clue  to  the  difference 
between  these  two  aristocratic  attitudes.  At  the  very  lowest  point,  the  Puritan 
saint  could  not  be  indifferent  to  the  conduct  of  the  damned — the  predestined 
— multitude,  if  only  because,  as  a  Puritan  divine  said,  their  conduct  stank  in 
the  nostrils  of  the  faithful.  The  Puritan  may  have  felt  he  could  not  save  the 
many,  but  he  certainly  could  not  let  them  sin  in  peace.  Actually,  as  I  have 
insisted,  his  practice  was  much  more  hopefully  melioristic  and  Christian  than 
his  theory.  He  wanted  his  fellows  to  behave  themselves,  and  he  did  his  best 
to  make  them  do  so.  As  for  the  less  heroic  forms  of  Protestantism,  they  never 
quite  lost,  any  more  than  did  the  Catholic  Church,  the  basic  Christian  drive  to 
achieve  a  society  in  which  all  men  should  live  up  to  the  aristocratic  Christian 
ethical  ideal — but  to  achieve  it  without  violence,  and  without  the  heroism  that 

The  Renaissance  return  to  the  Greeks  and  Romans,  then,  was  not  simply  a 
return  to  round  arches,  Ciceronian  Latin,  Plato,  and  the  rest;  nor  was  it  a 
return  to  anything  so  vague  as  a  healthy  paganism,  the  spirit  of  individual 
freedom,  the  revolt  against  authority.  It  was  an  attempt  made  by  another  aris- 
tocratic minority  to  live  again  the  life  of  the  beautiful-and-good,  the  Aris- 
totelian Golden  Mean,  the  enjoying — but  not  uncomfortably  original,  not 
worried,  not  frustrated — mind  in  the  graceful  body,  the  life  recommended  by 
the  Just  Cause  of  Aristophanes,  "redolent  of  ease,"  the  serene  divorce  from 
sweaty  reality  so  nicely  reflected  in  my  quotation  from  Seneca  (see  p.  116). 
"Courtesy,"  wrote  Paolo  da  Certaldo  in  the  fifteenth  century,  "is  nothing  but 
the  [Golden]  Mean,  and  the  Mean  endures."2  But  the  mean  in  this  sense  is 
about  as  far  from  "average"  as  one  can  get. 

Now  the  men  of  the  Renaissance  did,  like  their  Greek  models  of  the 
Great  Age,  make  a  real  effort  to  combine  in  one  the  excellences  of  the  two 
major  Western  aristocratic  roles,  so  often  separated  in  fact  and  in  ideal. 
They  sought  to  be  best  with  their  bodies  and  best  with  their  minds,  to  com- 
bine the  warrior-statesman  and  the  priest-artist-intellectual.  They  were  not 
by  any  means  as  successful  as  their  modern  admirers  have  made  them  out  to 
be.  The  Renaissance  scholar-humanist,  unaided  by  our  modern  lexicons, 
reference  books,  indexes,  and  well-catalogued  libraries,  had  so  colossal  a 

2  Paolo  da  Certaldo,  Libro  di  buoni  costumi,  ed.  by  Aldredo  Schiaffini,  Florence,  Felice 
Le  Monnier,  1945,  no.  82,  p.  79:  Cortesia  non  e  altro  se  non  misura,  e  misura  dura. 
There  are  touches  of  Polonius  in  this  little  fourteenth-century  book  of  moral  advice, 
much  folk  wisdom  and  common  Christian  sense,  and  faint  echoes  of  the  beautiful-and- 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

task  that  he  can  hardly  be  expected  to  have  had  time  to  develop  his  body. 
Some  of  them  did  their  best,  but  on  the  whole  the  European  scholar  was  as 
tied  to  his  desk  as  the  Schoolmen  had  been.  Indeed,  only  in  England  was  the 
attempt  to  bring  together  in  higher  education  the  young  of  both  aristocracies, 
the  doers-to-be  and  the  thinkers-to-be,  destined  to  survive  in  partial  success 
in  Oxford,  Cambridge,  and  the  public  schools.  On  the  other  side,  the  men  of 
virtu  had  nothing  for  the  exercise  of  their  bodies  quite  as  good  as  the  Greeks 
had  had  in  their  games  and  their  wars.  The  knightly  tournament  persisted, 
more  than  slightly  ridiculous,  in  the  sixteenth  century  of  the  High  Renais- 
sance in  Northern  and  Western  Europe;  the  hunt  and  youthful  games  were 
available.  But  gunpowder  had  begun  to  spoil  the  sport  of  war,  or,  at  least,  to 
spoil  its  aristocratic  side,  and  there  was  never  a  continental  equivalent  of  the 
playing  fields  of  Eton.  As  for  the  artists,  their  favorite  sporting  exercise  was 
usually  taken  in  bed. 

We  shall,  then,  defying  the  tradition  that  makes  the  Man  of  the  Renais- 
sance a  glorious  union  of  the  artist,  scholar,  and  man  of  action,  do  well  to 
consider  separately  the  ideals  of  the  humanist  and  of  the  man  of  vinii.  Of 
course,  the  two  ideals  worked  often  in  the  consciousness  of  the  same  man; 
more  particularly.,  the  artist  was  likely  to  try  to  have  the  best  of  both  worlds — 
sometimes,  as  with  a  Benvenuto  Cellini,  with  a  degree  of  success.  At  the 
court  of  Lorenzo  de*  Medici,  the  artists  and  the  men  of  letters  strove  for 
courtesy  and  virtu,  and  the  courtiers  strove  to  be  humanists.  Symonds, 
Burckhardt,  and  the  other  lovers  of  the  Renaissance — they  were  usually  also 
haters  of  the  nineteenth  century — were  not  wholly  wrong:  these  Renaissance 
athletes  of  the  spirit  tried  hard  to  be  Apollos.  They  tried,  perhaps,  a  little 
too  hard. 


The  humanist  ideal  gets  neatly,  but,  as  always,  imperfectly,  embodied  in  a 
culture  hero,  Erasmus.  The  humanist,  who  was  a  scholar  and  often  also  a 
man  of  letters  and  a  moralist,  was  not  what  we  know  as  a  natural  scientist. 
If,  like  Erasmus,  he  were  distinguished  enough,  he  did,  however,  acquire 
among  all  interested  in  formal  culture  something  like  the  prestige  of  the 
physicist  today.  Had  there  been  newspapers  and  news  weeklies,  Erasmus  and 
a  few  others  would  have  figured  prominently  on  their  pages,  as  an  Einstein 
or  a  Bohr  has  in  our  day.  How  far  down  into  the  masses  this  repntation  went 
in  the  sixteenth  century  is  hard  to  measure.  There  was  hardly  yet  in  the 


The  Renaissance 

West,  even  in  Florence,  Paris,  or  London,  the  equivalent  of  the  big  sophisti- 
cated cities  of  antiquity,  Athens  at  its  height,  Alexandria,  Rome,  no  doubt, 
certainly  Constantinople  at  the  height  of  the  figjht  over  Christian  heresies, 
where  your  man  in  the  street  is  a  kind  of  debased  intellectual,  lively  and 
interested  in  debate  on  matters  of  taste,  philosophy,  or  religion,  almost,  but 
not  quite,  as  much  as  in  sport  and  scandal. 

The  figure  of  Erasmus  suggests  some  negatives  about  the  humanist  ideal, 
negatives  with  which  we  may  frankly  begin  our  attempt  to  understand  the 
ideal  as  it  really  was,  for  they  must  be  cleared  out  of  the  way.  The  humanist 
was  no  democrat;  he  had  no  illusions  that  Plato  would  do  for  the  many.  It  is 
a  commonplace  that  the  first  few  generations  of  humanists  after  the  invention 
of  printing  felt  toward  that  mechanizing  of  a  beautiful  art  the  kind  of  scorn 
the  artist  has  ever  since  felt  for  the  machine-made.  Printed  books  they  dis- 
liked perhaps  also  because  such  readily  distributed  learning  threatened  to 
make  learning  easy  and  not  a  rare  distinction.  They  need  hardly  have  wor- 
ried. The  humanist  was  proud  of  the  skills  he  had  laboriously  acquired, 
proud  to  the  point  the  democrat  would  call  snobbishness.  These  skills  were 
the  traditional  skills  of  grammarian,  literary  historian,  critic,  philosopher, 
amassing  bits  from  the  already  immense  body  of  work  in  Latin  and  Greek; 
apart  from  a  touch  of  archaeology,  then  at  its  very  beginnings,  they  were  not 
the  skills  of  experimentation,  concrete  observation,  case  histories,  in  short, 
they  were  not  the  skills  of  the  scientist  who  dirties  his  hands.  The  humanist 
was  not  a  man  who  had  nobly  and  in  anticipation  of  the  modern  world 
emancipated  himself  from  the  authority  of  custom,  the  printed  word,  the 
accepted;  only,  unlike  the  Schoolmen,  he  did  cut  away  as  far  as  he  could 
patristic  and  medieval  tradition,  and  went  back  directly  to  his  beloved 
Greeks  and  Romans.  He  merely  substituted  one  authority  for  another.  To- 
ward the  Schoolmen  a  rebel,  toward  the  giants  of  classical  antiquity  he  was 
the  humble  disciple. 

But  he  was  humble  only  toward  the  long  dead  and  their  works.  He  was 
contemptuous  of  his  medieval  predecessors,  whom  he  regarded  as  benighted 
barbarians  ignorant  of  good  Latin  and  of  any  Greek,  subservient  to  the  repu- 
tation of  an  Aristotle  they  had  never  read  in  the  original.  Toward  his  con- 
temporaries he  displayed  that  curious  form  of  the  Western  struggle  for  prize 
which  prevails  among  the  learned,  and  which  has  rarely  been  as  naked,  as 
vehement,  as  Homeric,  since  the  great  era  of  the  humanists.  Erasmus  himself 
was  a  vain 'and  prickly  scholar,  justifiably  aware  of  his  gifts  and  his  prestige, 
but  certainly  guilty  of  the  great  Christian  sin  of  pride.  Here,  as  a  sample  of 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

the  controversial  manners  of  the  age — an  extreme  one,  no  doubt — is  Poggio 
Bracciolini  addressing  his  fellow  humanist  Tomasio  Filelfo: 

Thou  stinking  he-goat!  thou  horned  monster!  thou  malevolent  detractor  .  .  . 
May  the  divine  vengeance  destroy  thee  as  an  enemy  of  the  virtuous,  a  parricide 
who  endeavorest  to  ruin  the  wise  and  good  by  lies  and  slanders,  and  the  most 
false  and  foul  imputations.  If  thou  must  be  contumelious,  write  thy  satires  against 
the  suitors  of  thy  wife — discharge  the  putridity  of  thy  stomach  upon  those  who 
adorn  thy  forehead  with  horns.3 

It  is  true  that  these  quarrels  of  humanists  have  a  touch  of  the  unbuttoned 
that  one  does  not  find  in  later  and  purely  academic  versions — not  even  in 
the  nineteenth-century  German  version — of  the  entremangerie  professorate. 
There  is  Renaissance  gusto  in  all  but  the  driest  of  them,  a  sense  of  emancipa- 
tion rare  in  the  scholarly  tradition.  This  same  Poggio  Bracciolini,  when  in 
middle  age  he  found  it  prudent  to  marry,  "was  obliged  to  dismiss  a  mistress 
who  had  born  him  twelve  sons  and  two  daughters."4 

Yet  for  the  historian  of  morals  the  important  thing  about  the  Renaissance 
humanist  is  that  in  him  it  is  possible  to  see,  faintly  indeed — it  is  not  more 
than  the  old  reliable  small  cloud  on  the  horizon — the  beginnings  of  the 
alienation  of  the  intellectual  that  is  so  important  a  phase  of  our  own  moral 
climate.  The  attitude  described  in  that  nowadays-familiar  phrase  is  not  alto- 
gether absent  from  the  ancient  Greco-Roman  culture.  But  not  even  in  Plato, 
or  the  Roman  satirists,  or  in  Lucian  does  one  see  the  formation  of  a  corpo- 
rate spirit,  of  what  we  call  a  "class/'  aware  of  itself  and  of  its  differences 
from  any  other  social  and  economic  grouping,  convinced  that  it  does  not 
really  have  its  rightful  place  at  the  head  of  all  other  groups.  Among  the 
Renaissance  humanists  there  is  by  no  means  the  sentiment  that  vulgar  busi- 
nessmen are  doing  what  the  humanists  ought  to  do;  there  are  no  leagues  of 
artists  against  the  Philistines,  the  bourgeois.  We  must  not  deal  in  anachro- 
nistic fancies.  But  there  is  a  strong  consciousness  of  kind,  a  sense  of  belong- 
ing to  a  privileged  group,  a  group  so  privileged  not  by  birth  but  by  talents, 
and  disciplined  by  hard  work,  in  short,  an  aristocracy  of  the  mind,  an  elite. 
That  aristocracy  was  at  the  height  of  the  Renaissance  treated  very  well  indeed 
by  the  other  aristocracy,  that  of  the  body,  of  political  and  economic  power. 
There  is  not  yet  alienation.  But  it  will  come,  and  the  successors  of  the 
humanists  and  artists  of  the  Renaissance  will  be  ready  for  it. 

8  All  this,  of  course,  in  good  Latin.  Translated  in  M.  W.  Shepherd,  Life  of  Poggio  Brae- 
ciolini,  2nd  ed.,  Liverpool.  1837,  p.  282. 
4  Shepberd,  Bracciolini ,  p.  282. 


The  Renaissance 

Among  the  artists,  there  is  clearly  in  the  Renaissance  that  sense  of  not 
being  held  to  the  conventions  and  decencies  of  ordinary  life  that  was  later 
caricatured  in  nineteenth-century  "Bohemianism."  Again,  the  word  itself  is 
an  anachronism.  Not  even  late  medieval  circles  like  the  one  that  produced 
Villon,  though  they  were  raffish  and  disreputable  enough,  are  much  like  the 
self-conscious,  virtuously  loose-living  modern  Left  Bankers,  Greenwich  Vil- 
lagers, or  beat  North  Beachers.  For  one  thing,  there  was  no  Victorian  respect- 
ability to  revolt  from — that  is,  no  organized  and  powerful  middle  class. 
Cellini  himself,  for  all  his  crimes  and  disorders,  so  proudly  reported  in  his 
autobiography,  is  no  Bohemian.  Yet  the  signs  of  what  was  to  come  are  there, 
as  they  are  among  the  scholars.  The  artist  is  the  man  set  apart  to  do  great 
things,  the  man  made  to  break  rules,  the  man  who  cannot  be  expected  to 
put  up  with  the  dullness  of  life.  He  is  still  the  greatly  honored  Michelangelo, 
still  the  Protean  Leonardo  da  Vinci,  still,  even  as  a  minor  artist,  the  Cellini 
who  hobnobs  with  a  king  of  France.  His  successors  will  not  take  as  kindly  to 
their  middle-class  patrons. 

Once  more,  and  at  the  risk  of  being  unduly  tedious,  I  must  point  out  how 
thoroughly  the  Renaissance  ideal  of  humanist  and  artist  bears  the  stamp  of 
the  struggle  to  prevail  in  an  intense  competition.  I  would  not  for  a  moment 
contest  the  fact  that  the  scholar  and  the  artist  were  inspired  by  lofty  ideals  of 
Truth  and  Beauty.  I  am  willing  to  grant  that  it  is  nobler,  more  useful  to 
mankind,  altogether  morally  better,  to  produce  the  best  piece  of  statuary,  the 
best  critical  edition  of  Aeschylus,  the  best  plan  for  St  Peter's,  than  it  is  to 
run  the  fastest  race,  knock  out  the  most  opponents  in  prize  fights,  joust  best 
in  a  tourney.  But  we  should  not  forget,  as  we  tend  to  forget  when  we  feel  the 
prizes  of  a  contest  are  noble,  that  the  contest  still  was  a  fight,  that  there  were 
more  losers  than  winners,  that  the  winner  almost  certainly  enjoyed  winning, 
that,  in  short,  the  Sermon  on  the  Mount  was  no  part  of  it  all.  The  Renais- 
sance so  many  have  admired  from  a  distance,  the  Renaissance  the  textbooks 
strew  with  nice  words  like  "individualism/'  "free  spirits,"  "gusto,"  was  in 
fact  one  of  the  most  violent  free-for-alls  of  Western  history,  one  with  a  great 
deal  of  infighting,  and  no  referee. 


The  most  important  and  all-inclusive  of  Renaissance  ideals  is  that  of  virtu. 
It  is  an  ideal  that  descends  clearly  in  many  ways  from  the  medieval  knightly 
ideal,  and  in  one  of  its  phases,  that  represented  by  the  familiar  Courtier  of 


A  History  0}  Western  Morals 

Castiglione,  employs  the  same  term  the  troubadours  used  to  designate  the 
ideal  of  courtly  love.  It  is  an  ideal  for  the  first  aristocracy,  the  men  of  affairs, 
though  certainly  many  a  member  of  the  second  aristocracy  was  inspired  to 
follow  it.  Cellini,  for  instance,  was  sure  that  he  had  achieved  virtu — as, 
indeed,  he  had. 

Etymology  can  help  here,  and  clear  up  the  difficulty  that  springs  from  the 
fact  that  virtu  is  not  virtue.  Both  words  come  from  the  same  Latin  root, 
which  means  simply  "male  strength,"  and  has  survived  in  the  English  "virile/' 
In  modern  English  and  French,  however,  Christianity  has  scored  at  least  a 
verbal  triumph  and  has  succeeded  in  divesting  the  word  "virtue"  of  its  mas- 
culinity, pugnaciousness,  and  general  aura  of  magic  potency,  and  investing  it 
with  its  current  and  relatively  peaceful  ethical  content.  The  Italian  virtu,  the 
great  word  of  the  Renaissance,  kept  its  more  primitive  associations;  but 
even  so,  when  taken  over  bodily  into  English  in  the  eighteenth  century,  it 
came  to  mean  there  a  passionate  connoisseurship  of  art  objects,  became 
merely  a  part  of  that  great  Mignon  complex,  or  fallacy,  that  has  so  distorted 
our  Northern  understanding  of  the  Italians. 

Virtu  for  the  man  of  the  Italian  Renaissance  meant  doing  supremely  well, 
gracefully,  and,  if  possible,  with  no  sign  of  effort,  what  his  society  esteemed 
most  worth  doing.  Now  as  I  have  already  noted,  it  is  true  enough  that  in  the 
Renaissance  many  of  the  things  scholars  and  artists  do  were  esteemed  as 
permitting  the  exhibition  of  virtii.  (No  lonely  virtu,  of  course;  it  has  to  be 
exhibited  to  others.)  Castiglione  would  have  his  courtier 

more  than  passably  accomplished  in  letters,  at  least  in  those  studies  that  are  called 
the  humanities,  and  conversant  not  only  with  the  Latin  language  but  with  the 
Greek,  for  the  sake  of  the  many  different  things  that  have  been  admirably  written 
therein.  Let  him  be  well  versed  in  the  poets,  and  not  less  in  the  orators  and  his- 
torians, and  also  proficient  in  writing  verse  and  prose,  especially  in  this  vulgar 
tongue  of  ours;  for  besides  the  enjoyment  he  will  find  in  it,  he  will  by  this  means 
never  lack  agreeable  entertainment  with  ladies,  who  are  usually  fond  of  such 
things.  .  .  ,5 

But  Castiglione's  man  of  virttt  has  much  more  firmly  the  markings  of  the 
aristocrat  of  the  great  Western  tradition  of  bodily  gifts,  of  the  warrior  spirit 
and  training,  tamed  vastly,  softened  perhaps,  and  certainly  civilized,  in  com- 
parison with  the  simple  sword  wielders  of  old,  but  still  a  full  hormonal  male. 
Again,  an  excerpt  or  two  will  do: 

5  Castiglione,  Count  Baldassare,  The  Book  of  the  Courtier  (1528),  trans,  by  Leonard 
Eckstein  Opdycke,  New  York,  Scribner,  1903,  p.  59. 


The  Renaissance 

...  I  am  of  opinion  that  the  principal  and  true  profession  of  the  Courtier  ought 
to  be  that  of  arms;  which  I  would  have  him  follow  actively  above  all  else,  and 
be  known  among  others  as  bold  and  strong,  and  loyal  to  whomever  he  serves.  And 
he  will  win  a  reputation  for  these  good  qualities  by  exercising  them  at  all  times 
and  in  all  places,  since  one  may  never  fail  in  this  without  severest  censure.  And 
just  as  among  women,  their  f air  fame  once  sullied  never  recovers  its  first  lustre, 
so  the  reputation  of  a  gentleman  who  bears  arms,  if  once  it  be  in  the  least 
tarnished  with  cowardice  or  other  disgrace,  remains  forever  infamous  before  the 
world  and  full  of  ignominy.  Therefore  the  more  our  Courtier  excels  in  this  art,  the 
more  he  will  be  worthy  of  praise.  .  .  . 

I  wish,  then  that  this  Courtier  of  ours  should  be  nobly  born  and  of  gentle  race; 
because  it  is  far  less  unseemly  for  one  of  ignoble  birth  to  fail  in  worthy  deeds, 
than  for  one  of  noble  birth,  who,  if  he  strays  from  the  path  of  his  predecessors, 
stains  his  family  name,  and  not  only  fails  to  achieve  but  loses  what  has  been 
achieved  already;  for  noble  birth  is  like  a  bright  lamp  that  manifests  and  makes 
visible  good  and  evil  deeds,  and  kindles  and  stimulates  to  virtue  both  by  fear  of 
shame  and  by  hope  of  praise.  And  since  this  splendour  of  nobility  does  not 
illumine  the  deeds  of  the  humbly  born,  they  lack  that  stimulus  and  fear  of 
shame,  nor  do  they  feel  any  obligation  to  advance  beyond  what  then*  predecessors 
have  done;  while  to  the  nobly  born  it  seems  a  reproach  not  to  reach  at  least  the 
goal  set  them  by  their  ancestors.  And  thus  it  nearly  always  happens  that  both  in 
the  profession  of  arms  and  in  other  worthy  pursuits  the  most  famous  men  have 
been  of  noble  birth,  because  nature  has  implanted  in  everything  that  hidden  seed 
which  gives  a  certain  force  and  quality  of  its  own  essence  to  all  things  that  are 
derived  from  it,  and  makes  them  like  itself:  as  we  see  not  only  in  the  breeds  of 
horses  and  of  other  animals,  but  also  in  trees,  the  shoots  of  which  nearly  always 
resemble  the  trunk;  and  if  they  sometimes  degenerate,  it  arises  from  poor  cultiva- 
tion. And  so  it  is  with  men  who  if  rightly  trained  are  nearly  always  like  those 
from  whom  they  spring,  and  often  better;  but  if  there  be  no  one  to  give  them 
proper  care,  they  become  like  savages  and  never  reach  perfection.6 

The  Courtier  is,  like  so  much  else  in  the  Renaissance,  deliberately  Greek. 
Sir  Harold  Nicolson  has  put  this  well : 

Castiglione  had  at  the  back  of  his  mind  the  twelve  great  virtues  which  Aristotle 
defined  as  essential  to  the  perfect  man.  He  assumes  above  all  that  the  good 
courtier  will  possess  the  two  virtues  of  Magnanimity  and  u^aXoTrpeVeia,  ^hich  is 
generally  translated  'magnificence/  but  which  also  signifies  'grandeur  controlled 
by  taste.'  It  is  greatness  of  mind  and  nobility  of  soul  that  differentiate  good  man- 
ners from  such  things  as  deportment  and  etiquette,  which  can  be  taught  fcby  any 
dancing  master.'  Moreover,  the  function  of  courtier  might  be  humiliating,  were 
it  not  for  the  end,  or  telos,  that  it  serves.  A  courtier  should  train  himself  to  be- 
come a  man  of  such  character,  ability  and  standing  as  to  be  able  to  direct  his 

6  Castiglione,  The  Book  of  the  Courtier,  pp.  25,  22. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

prince  along  the  paths  of  liberality  and  justice  and  to  keep  him  always  within  'la 
austera  strada  della  virtu.5  Were  it  not  for  such  high  ideals  and  purposes  the  posi- 
tion of  a  courtier  might  appear  parasitic.7 

Castiglione,  who  seems  to  have  been  a  nice  man  and  who,  after  all,  was 
writing  a  book  of  etiquette,  even  though  it  has  high  philosophical  touches, 
does  not  really  underline  the  extent  to  which  virtu  is  a  masculine  thing.  But 
note  a  significant  detail  from  the  history  of  costume.  The  fifteenth  and  early 
sixteenth  centuries  are,  as  far  as  I  know,  the  only  period  in  the  history  of  the 
West  when  the  male  wore  very  tight  lower  garments  ("hose"),  with  a  con- 
spicuous codpiece,  which  was  often  ornamented.  This  fact  "proves"  nothing 
but  symbolizes  a  great  deal.  The  man  of  the  Renaissance  admired  masculin- 
ity, one  may  hazard,  but  was  a  bit  uncertain  as  to  whether  he  had  it;  hence, 
he  must  display  what  he  undoubtedly  had.  Remember,  the  old  feudal  fact  of 
maleness,  untouched  by  art  and  letters,  was  still  fresh  in  men's  minds.  In- 
deed, one  may  hazard  a  broader  and  even  riskier  generalization:  in  the 
Western  tradition,  the  pursuits  of  the  artist,  writer,  scholar,  priest  have  never 
been  accepted  generally  as  fully  masculine  pursuits.  The  codpiece  accom- 
panied naturally  enough  the  highest  masculine  flight  of  the  artist  and  thinker. 

A  special  kind  of  virtu  came  from  the  successful  application  of  this 
heightened  ethics  of  competition  to  politics.  We  think,  once  we  have  got 
over  our  first  normal  Western  identification  of  Renaissance  with  Art — an 
identification  not  necessarily  made  by  the  men  of  the  Renaissance  themselves 
— of  the  Borgias,  of  Machiavelli,  of  the  condottiere,  of  the  Renaissance 
popes,  as  typical  figures  of  their  age.  And  so  they  are.  High  politics,  it  need 
hardly  be  said,  is  not  a  pursuit  in  which  the  participants  have  generally  lived 
up  to  the  best  ethical  concepts  of  the  Western  tradition.  But  the  politics  of 
Renaissance  Italy  survives  in  our  memory,  along  with  that  of  the  Roman 
Empire  at  its  worst,  as  peculiarly  immoral,  as  combining  the  refinements  of 
a  high  culture  with  the  ferociously  unprincipled  struggle  for  power  of  Mero- 
vingian France.  The  world  of  Machiavelli  does,  however,  seem  to  most  of  us 
somehow  worse  than  that  of  Gregory  of  Tours — though  the  fact  remains  that 
in  the  end  both  justify  acts  that  are  certainly  contrary  to  the  rules  of  Christian 
morality.  Perhaps  we  are  all  victims  of  our  feeling  for  history:  Cesare  Borgia 
should  have  known  better;  Clovis  the  barbarian  could  not  have  known  better. 

Nor  was  the  politics  of  virtu  by  any  means  limited  to  Italy.  Burckhardt, 
who  did  not  like  being  the  safe  Swiss  bourgeois  he  was,  admired  the  virtu- 
filled  actors  of  European  politics,  as  he  admired  most  of  what  went  on  in  the 
7  Good  Behaviour,  Garden  City,  N.Y.,  Doubleday,  1956,  p.  152. 


The  Renaissance 

sixteenth  century.  They  made  the  state  a  work  of  art,  he  felt  And  as  artists 
they  could  hardly  expect  to  be  what  the  bourgeois  call  moral.  Certainly  the 
personalities  stand  out.  The  struggle  for  power  between  Charles  V  and 
Francis  I,  with  Henry  VIII  strutting  the  sidelines,  with  all  Italy  boiling  with 
men  of  virtu,  with  Protestantism  in  the  North  in  its  first  heat  of  passion — all 
this,  heightened  by  the  beauties  of  art  and  letters,  makes  a  picture  most  at- 
tractive from  a  safe  distance.  But  the  potlatch  touch  is  there,  in  fact,  rather 
more  murderous  in  its  ultimate  extension  than  it  seems  to  have  been  among 
the  aborigines  of  the  Pacific  Northwest,  and  absolutely,  if  not  relatively, 
even  more  expensive.  No  Kwakiutl  ever  bested  those  two  Renaissance  tribes- 
men Francis  I  and  Henry  VIII  at  their  meeting  on  the  Cloth  of  Gold  near 
Calais.  Indeed,  for  those  who  like  to  line  up  the  perfect  transitional  moment 
from  medieval  to  modern — Dante,  first  modern  and  last  medieval  writer, 
Bouvines,  last  medieval  and  first  modern  battle,  and  so  on — the  Held  of  the 
doth  of  Gold  (1520)  makes  an  excellent,  if  rather  late,  moment.  The  Field 
was  a  medieval  tourney,  the  armored  knights  tilting  away  as  of  old;  but  it 
was  also  an  international  conference  "at  the  summit,"  and  it  was  conducted 
with  some  awareness  of  what  we  call  "public  opinion.*' 

One  final  carping  word  about  the  Renaissance  ideal.  These  aristocrats 
were  reasonably  secure  in  their  superiority,  clear  that  they  were  above  the 
common  herd.  They  did  not,  it  is  true,  seem  to  worry  much  about  their 
inferiors.  And  yet,  they  seem,  from  our  remove  in  time,  to  be  not  quite  as 
assured  as  the  Greek  gentlemen  were;  they  seem  to  be  consciously  different 
from  the  vulgar,  on  the  edge,  at  least,  of  worrying  about  their  superiority. 
Castiglione  can  be  read  as  being  somewhat  on  the  defensive.  The  reader  may 
remember  the  line  from  Homer  cited  in  Chapter  m,  which  I  have  crudely 
translated  "always  to  be  best  in  masculine  excellences  and  come  out  on  top 
of  others"  (see  p.  65).  Here  is  the  Renaissance  George  Chapman's  version: 
"that  I  should  always  beare  me  well,  and  my  deserts  enlarge  beyond  the 
vulgar.  .  .  ."s  One  should  not  hang  too  much  on  a  single  instance.  But 
Homer  says  not  a  word  that  can  be  remotely  associated  with  the  concept  of 
"vulgar."  The  man  of  virtu  knew  the  vulgar  were  there,  not  altogether  un- 

I  have  no  doubt  painted  too  black  a  picture  of  the  two  great  Renaissance 
ideals  of  the  humanist  and  the  man  of  virtu,  or,  at  any  rate,  of  men  trying  to 
live  up  to  these  ideals.  The  humanist  was  not  always  vain  and  quarrelsome 

8  Homer1  s  Iliad,  trans,  by  George  Chapman,  London,  Routledge,  1886,  Book  VI,  line 
218  in  the  translation. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

with  the  peculiar  defensive  vanity  and  purely  verbal  violence  of  the  scholar; 
and  in  the  ideal  he  should  not  have  been  vain  and  quarrelsome.  The  Floren- 
tine Platonists  were  apparently  gentle  souls,  no  more  than  agreeably  proud 
of  their  great  learning.  Ficino,  in  an  age  when  the  scholar  might  in  an  eco- 
nomic sense  exploit  his  patrons  and  often  did,  remained  as  poor  and  devoted 
to  his  tasks  as  any  medieval  monk.  The  many  Christian  humanists  who  be- 
fore and  after  the  hotly  combative  Luther  and  the  coldly  assured  Calvin 
sought  to  bring  the  new  learning  to  purify  but  not  disrupt  the  old  church 
were  often  as  good  Christians  as  it  is  permitted  men  to  be,  modest,  temper- 
ate, kindly,  firm,  unposturing.  Guillaume  Farel,  John  Colet,  St.  Thomas 
More,  or,  among  those  who  left  the  church,  Zwingli  and  Melanchthon,  must 
be  put  as  a  balance  against  the  more  violent  and  prideful.  Virtu  itself  need 
not,  and  did  not,  always  take  the  course  it  took  with  Cellini,  or  Cesare 
Borgia,  or  the  other  Renaissance  earth  stormers.  Lorenzo  de'  Medici  was 
worthy  of  his  circle.  Castiglione's  cortegiano  was  no  mere  exemplar  of  the 
will  to  shine,  but  a  cultivated,  disciplined,  considerate  gentleman,  trained  to 
reconcile  in  conduct  and  in  ideal  the  beautiful  and  the  good. 

"Reconcile"  is  not  the  word  the  Renaissance  man  would  use  here.  The 
ideal  has  the  attractiveness  most  of  us  find  in  the  old  Greek  identification  of 
the  beautiful  with  the  good — to  which  one  might  as  well  add  the  true,  even 
the  natural.  These  great  and  good  words,  no  matter  how  they  may  annoy  the 
naive  semanticist,  mean  much,  and  very  specifically.  The  beautiful  means 
inevitably  to  us  Westerners  much  that  the  puritanical  strain  in  our  Christian- 
ity cannot  quite  accept  as  good:  guiltless  sensuous  pleasures  of  all  sorts,  from 
pleasure  in  human  nakedness  to  pleasures  in  sounds  that  lull  instead  of 
Inspire.  The  true  must  seem  to  many  of  us  not  quite  the  unavoidable  and  not 
Very  pleasant  thing  the  realist — or  Nature  herself — sometimes  thrusts  under 
our  noses.  Somewhere,  outside  the  cave  Plato  himself  did  not  quite  escape 
from,  beauty  must  be  truth,  truth  beauty,  and  both  good  and  natural.  Why 
not  in  Medicean  Florence? 


Why  not  indeed?  For  one  thing,  because  a  Florentine  monk,  Girolamo 
Savonarola,  who  does  not  figure  in  the  Mignon  complex,  did  not  feel  that  the 
beautiful  is  the  good.  Savonarola's  brief  bonfire  of  books  and  paintings  seems 
out  of  place  in  the  Renaissance,  and  so  it  is,  for  the  Renaissance  is  not  a 
"period,"  but,  rather,  the  lives  and  achievements  of  a  small  group  of  artists, 


The  Renaissance 

scholars,  men  of  virtu.  Unlike  Puritanism,  the  Renaissance  never  did  touch 
the  many,  even  in  Italy.  No  doubt  the  Florentine  masses  were  aware  of  the 
reputation  of  their  city,  and  proud  of  it;  so  were  the  Parisians  of  the  nine- 
teenth century  aware  that  theirs  was  la  ville  lumiere.  But  this  is  the  vicarious 
satisfaction  of  fctpooled  self-esteem."  Neither  morally  nor  aesthetically  were 
the  masses  of  either  city  lifted  to  the  level  of  those  they  admired. 

Savonarola's  brief  career  as  a  Puritanical  fanatic  at  least  as  extreme  as 
the  Calvinists  is  a  reminder  of  several  things  that  need  saying  here.  First, 
although  no  Puritanism  imprinted  itself  as  a  way  of  life  among  the  many  in 
the  so-called  "Latin"  nations  as  did  Calvinism  in  the  North,  the  notion  that 
Puritanism  plays  no  part  in  the  moral  history  of  these  lands  is  not  true.  The 
Puritan  temper  is  in  its  characteristic  forms  passionate  indeed,  dedicated  to 
ends  utterly  opposed  to  the  ideal  of  the  beautiful-and-good.  excitable,  per- 
fectly congruous  with  our  stereotypes  about  the  Latin  temperament.  Histor- 
ically, Puritanism  was  bora  in  the  Mediterranean,  with  Moses  and  with 
Plato,  and  it  has  never  ceased  to  crop  up  there.  Most  of  the  great  renewals 
of  Latin  monasticism  were  inspired  by  the  Puritan  desire  to  subdue  the  old 
and  too-comfortable  Adam  in  us  all.  From  Arnold  of  Brescia  through  Francis 
of  Assisi  to  Savonarola  and  Socinus,  Italy  has  produced  in  all  their  varieties 
these  passionate  men  of  single  purpose,  who  do  not  remind  one  at  all  of  the 
brilliant  polymaths  and  sunny  artists  of  the  Renaissance — the  Leonardos,  the 
Ficinos,  the  Raphaels  .  .  .  and  the  Sodomas.  Spain,  of  course,  does  even 
better  with  the  austere,  tortured,  proudly  militant  or  raptly  mystical  Christian 
whom  we  English-speaking  people  cannot  think  of  as  Puritans,  largely,  no 
doubt,  because  our  own  Puritan  ancestors  thought  of  Spaniards  as  their  an- 
titheses as  well  as  their  enemies.  The  list  is  long,  culminating  in  Loyola,  St. 
John  of  the  Cross,  and  that  Greek  who  must  have  been  a  Spaniard,  though  he 
goes  by  the  name  of  El  Greco. 

Savonarola  may  remind  us  not  only  of  the  fact  that  even  in  the  South 
there  are,  especially  for  the  historian  of  morals,  many  great  figures  in  the 
chronological  "period"  Renaissance  that  do  not  fit  with  the  threar  Renais- 
sance, but  also  of  the  fact  that  Savonarola  and  many  of  these  other  dark 
rebels  against  even  the  beautiful-and-good  in  its  resurrected  form  could 
move  the  people,  the  many,  in  a  way  the  Politians,  the  Ficinos,  the  Erasmuses, 
the  painters  and  sculptors  could  not — and  indeed  did  not  want  to  move  them. 
They  remind  us  who  are  Protestants  that  the  passions,  the  great  mass 
movements,  the  killings  and  the  torturings,  the  series  of  revolutions  we  call  the 
Reformation  are  no  Northern  thing,  but  cover  all  the  West.  Spain  again  is  a 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

good  symbol.  The  siglo  de  oro  was  not  for  most  Spaniards  a  time  of  great 
artists  and  writers;  it  was  a  time  of  searing  religious  conflicts  between  the 
conservatives  and  the  reformers,  conflicts  quite  as  bitter  as  if  Lutherans  and 
Calvinists  had  actually  won  a  foothold  in  Spain,  conflicts  that  bred  among 
the  masses  that  extraordinary  tension  that  is  the  mark  of  social  revolution, 
successful  or  abortive.  This  is  what  happened  to  the  body  of  St.  John  of  the 

Hardly  had  his  breath  ceased  than,  though  it  was  an  hour  past  midnight,  cold  and 
raining  hard,  crowds  assembled  in  the  street  and  poured  into  the  convent.  Press- 
ing into  the  room  where  he  lay,  they  knelt  to  kiss  his  feet  and  hands.  They  cut 
off  pieces  from  his  clothes  and  bandages  and  even  pulled  out  the  swabs  that  had 
been  placed  on  his  sores.  Others  took  snippings  from  his  hah*  and  tore  oft  his 
nails,  and  would  have  cut  pieces  from  his  flesh  had  it  not  been  forbidden.  At  his 
funeral  these  scenes  were  repeated.  Forcing  their  way  past  the  friars  who  guarded 
his  body,  the  mob  tore  off  his  habit  and  even  took  parts  of  his  ulcered  flesh.9 

Something  like  this  can  happen  anywhere,  anytime,  as  long  as  the  Chris- 
tian eschatology  has  meaning  for  the  many;  if  sin,  damnation,  and  salvation 
are  real  to  them,  men  are  going  to  grasp  excitedly  for  available  salvation,  as 
they  would  for  available  gold.10  But  there  was  too  much  of  this  kind  of  reli- 
gious frenzy,  too  many  signs  of  deep  popular  disturbance  and  unrest,  in  the 
centuries  that  culminate  with  the  sixteenth  for  the  historian  of  morals  to 
dismiss  all  this  as  simply  another  constant  of  human  conduct.  We  come  to 
the  most  important  and  difficult  part  of  our  subject,  the  estimate  of  the  level 
of  moral  life  of  an  age.  It  looks  as  if  for  such  a  purpose  the  chronological 
period  really  appropriate  is  the  last  few  centuries  of  the  Middle  Ages — 
Huizinga's  "autumn"  of  the  Middle  Ages,  roughly  the  fourteenth  and  fifteenth 
centuries — and  the  sixteenth  century  itself,  the  golden  age  of  the  Renaissance. 
These  look  like  disturbed,  unhappy,  difficult  centuries,  especially  for  the 
many,  a  period  of  moral  lapse,  a  kind  of  trough  in  the  diagrammatic  account 
of  human  conduct  in  the  West. 

It  is  difficult,  and  perhaps  impossible,  to  show  an  actual  decline  in  the  kind 
of  conduct  easiest  described  as  the  domain  of  conventional  private  morality. 
Was  there  over  all  the  West  a  relatively  greater  number  of  men  and  women 
who  commonly  lied,  raped,  murdered,  fornicated,  committed  adultery,  stole, 

9  Gerald  Brenan,  "A  Short  Life  of  St.  John  of  the  Cross,"  in  The  Golden  Horizon,  ed. 
b>  Cyril  Connolly,  London,  Weidenfeld  and  Nicolson,  1953,  pp.  475-476. 

10  It  began  to  happen  not  many  years  ago  over  the  grave  of  a  priest  in  greater  Boston; 
church  and  state  combined  to  stifle  so  un-American  a  manifestation  of  the  primitive  in 


The  Renaissance 

got  drunk,  idled  unprofitably,  behaved,  as  our  self-conscious  generation  puts 
it,  "neurotically,"  in  1490  than  in  1290?  The  reader  knows  already  that  I 
do  not  think  this  question  can  be  answered  at  all  in  accordance  with  the 
highest  standards  of  the  historian's  profession.  National,  local,  class  variation 
in  these  matters  forces  itself  on  our  attention  ever  more  vigorously  as  our 
sources  improve  in  quantity.  Nevertheless,  I  think  it  worth  while  to  try  to 
guess  at  some  answers,  which  add  up  to  a  6fcyes,  there  is  more  private  im- 
morality on  an  average  and  among  the  many  in  these  centuries." 

The  preachers,  the  moralists,  are  vigorous  enough.  Here  is  a  final  lead 
from  Savonarola,  who  writes  to  his  father  in  1475: 

In  primis:  the  reason  that  moved  me  to  enter  religion  is:  first,  the  great  misery 
of  the  world,  the  iniquities  of  men,  the  rapes,  adulteries,  larcenies,  pride,  idola- 
tries, and  cruel  blasphemies  which  have  brought  the  world  so  low  that  there  is 
no  longer  anyone  who  does  good;  hence  more  than  once  a  day  I  have  sung  this 
verse,  weeping:  Heu  fuge  crudelas  terras,  fuge  littus  avarum!  And  this  is  why  I 
could  not  suffer  the  great  malice  of  the  blind  peoples  of  Italy,  and  the  more  so 
as  I  saw  all  virtues  cast  down  and  all  vices  raised  up.  This  was  the  greatest  suffer- 
ing I  could  have  in  this  world.11 

And  here  is  a  less  exalted  moralist,  the  English  Elizabethan  translator — 
Grub  Street  is  already  near — Aegremont  RatcliSe: 

For  who  ever  saw  so  many  discontented  persons:  so  many  yrked  with  their  owne 
degrees:  so  fewe  contented  with  their  owne  calling:  and  such  number  desirous, 
greedie  of  change,  novelties?  Who  ever  heard  tel  of  so  many  reformers, 
or  rather  deformers  of  estates  and  Common  weales;  so  many  controllers  of 
Princes,  and  their  proceedinges:  and  so  fewe  imbracing  obedience?  whiche  be- 
ginneth  nowe  (the  more  pitie)  to  be  lagged  at  the  carte's  taile.  And  to  be  short: 
such  straunge  and  souden  alteration  in  all  estates?  .  .  .  The  Merchant,  doth  he 
not  tickle  at  the  title  of  a  Gentleman?  Tne  Gentleman,  doth  he  not  shoot  at  the 
marke  of  Nobility?  And  the  Noble  man,  hath  he  not  his  eye  fixed  uppon  the 
glorie  and  greatnesse  of  a  Prince?  What  Prince  could  not  be  contended  to  be 
Monarche  of  the  whole  world?12 

Finally,  even  earlier  there  are  ample  signs  of  the  kind  of  social  unrest 
that  makes,  if  not  for  private  immorality,  at  least  for  the  kind  of  personal 
difficulties  over  status,  security,  discipline  v^hich  our  contemporary  alarmists 
seem  to  find  so  unprecedented.  As  early  as  1381,  John  Ball  wrote: 

By  what  right  are  they  whom  men  call  lords  greater  folk  than  we?  .  .  .  how  can 

ii  Quoted  in  Ralph  Roeder,  The  Man  of  the  Renaissance,  New  York,  Viking,  1933,  p.  4. 
12 "Dedication  to  Politique  discourses"'  quoted  in  Ruth  Kelso,  The  Doctrine  of  the 
znghth  Gentleman  in  the  Sixteenth  Century,  University  of  Illinois,  Studies  in  Language 
and  Literature,  XIV,  No.  1-2,  Feb.-May.  1929,  p.  32. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

they  say  or  prove  they  are  better  than  we,  if  it  be  not  that  they  make  us  gain  for 
them  by  our  toil  what  they  spend  in  their  pride.13 

Now  it  is  true  enough,  as  I  have  pointed  out  in  my  introductory  chapter,  that 
there  is  in  Western  tradition  almost  a  constant  of  complaint  of  this  sort, 
generation  after  generation  of  intellectuals  who  tell  us  the  men  and  women 
of  their  time  are  wicked,  more  wicked  than  usual,  and  who  say  so  with  an 
eloquence  that  makes  my  report  of  what  they  said  seem  inadequate.  Yet  we 
must  not  conclude  that  such  complaints  are  of  no  use  to  the  historian  seeking 
to  find  out  how  men  really  did  conduct  themselves;  these  moralists  must  be 
used  with  care,  with  due  reference  to  all  other  sources,  and  to  the  full  record 
of  other  kinds  of  history,  but  when  so  used  may  help  us  in  our  attempt  at 
retrospective  man  watching, 

There  is,  then,  hi  the  writings  of  these  men  of  late  medieval  and  early 
modern  times  a  surprising  degree  of  unanimity  about  the  moral  failings  of 
their  age.  Their  tone  is  quite  different  from  that  of  what  was,  after  all,  a  great 
Age  of  Complaint  and  even  Conflict,  the  Victorian.  The  Mills,  the  Carlyles, 
the  Renans,  yes,  even  the  Kierkegaards  and  the  Nietzsches,  make  their  chief 
attack  on  mere  stuffiness,  "middle-class  morality,"  and  insensitiveness  to  the 
good  and  the  beautiful.  The  moralists  of  the  eighteenth-century  Enlighten- 
ment center  their  attack  on  the  privileged  classes;  they  clearly  for  the  most 
part  believe  in  the  natural  goodness  of  the  common  man.  But  the  late  medi- 
eval and  early  modern  reformers,  from  Wycliffe  and  Hus  to  Luther  and 
Calvin,  spare  no  one.  They  are,  of  course,  preachers  by  calling.  What  they 
say  is  backed  up,  however,  from  many  sources.  It  is  no  doubt  unwise  to  swing 
completely  around  to  the  "realist,"  and  insist  that  Chaucer,  Boccaccio, 
Marguerite  of  Navarre,  and  the  others  are  simply  reporters,  social  scientists 
desirous  of  arriving  at  the  typical  in  human  behavior.  It  would  be  dangerous 
to  call  in  and  take  at  their  word  the  deliberate  shockers,  an  Aretino,  the 
proto-Bohemians,  a  Villon,  the  cheerful  skeptics,  a  Rabelais,  the  concerned 
skeptics,  a  Montaigne,  the  inverted  idealists,  a  MachiaveLi.  But  when  taken 
with  several  grams  of  salt  their  evidence  is  impressive:  a  troubled,  lively, 
fascinating,  and  immoral  age. 

When,  therefore,  all  this  is  put  together,  when  much  social  history  is 
added  in  confirmation,  one  gets  the  firm  impression  that  the  Reformation, 
Protestant  and  Catholic,  was  needed,  and  was  indeed  a  moral  reformation. 
Again,  no  single  item  is  necessarily  more  than  a  bit  of  the  fait  divers  which 
were  there  before  there  were  newspapers  to  record  them.  When  we  read  that 
13  Quoted  in  Kelso,  English  Gentleman,  p.  31. 


The  Renaissance 

Charles  the  Bold  in  1468  witnessed  a  Judgment  of  Paris  in  which  the  three 
goddesses  were  appropriately  naked,  we  may  regard  this  as  just  one  more 
example  of  the  way  the  great  misconduct  themselves.  When  we  read  that 
women  danced  naked  in  some  of  the  taverns,  we  may  feel  we  are  simply  deal- 
ing with  the  eternal  Folies-Bergere,  one  of  the  great  constants  of  history.14 
But  when  to  many  details  of  the  sort  one  adds  the  fact  that  in  the  history  of 
female  costume  these  centuries,  starting  from  the  full,  modest  robes  of  the 
thirteenth  century,  witness  the  gradual  development  of  exposure  and  empha- 
sis until  decolletage,  front  and  back,  becomes  as  complete  as  possible — and  is 
accompanied  by  that  helpful  egalitarian  device  we  call  "falsies" — we  begin 
to  see  the  light  of  a  process,  a  describable  social  change.15 

Indeed,  the  historian  of  morals,  who  should  realize  that  deeds  are  often 
closer  to  other  deeds  than  words  to  deeds,  must  pay  careful  attention  to  the 
history  of  human  dress.  Clothes  are  one  of  the  chief  forms  of  conspicuous 
consumption,  one  of  the  chief  signs  of  great  success  in  any  agon.  There  is 
certainly  no  universal  co-ordination  between  clothes  and  sex  morality,  but 
within  one  cultural  tradition,  such  as  that  of  the  West,  female  costume  is  at 
least  some  indication  of  how  far  in  a  given  class  strict,  male-dominated 
monogamous  marriage  is  an  expected  and  even  realized  thing.  We  must  re- 
turn eventually  in  considering  our  own  society  to  this  puzzling  problem  of 
the  relation  between  the  outward  recognition — even  the  flaunting — of  sex 
differences,  the  display  of  the  female  breasts,  the  male  genitalia  (as  in  the 
above-mentioned  codpiece,  symbol  of  virtu) ,  and  the  morals  and  the  morale 
of  a  whole  class  or  society.  We  may  modestly  rest  content  here  with  the 
obvious  fact  that  in  the  late  Middle  Ages  and  in  the  Renaissance  the  facts  of 
sex  were  flaunted. 

There  are  other  indications  of  a  high-living  age.  The  arts  of  luxury,  not 
merely  dress  but  furniture,  cookery,  private  and  public  building,  all  flourish. 
The  ideals  of  the  humanist  and,  on  the  surface,  the  man  of  virtu,  pay  respect 
to  the  "classical"  or  ** Apollonian"  feeling  for  moderation,  self-discipline, 
restraint,  respect  for  the  opinions  of  one's  peer  group,  the  old  Greek  wisdom 
of  "nothing  in  excess."  Yet  the  fifteenth  and  sixteenth  centuries  were  among 
the  wildest,  most  excessive,  most  exuberant  of  times.  Painting,  sculpture, 

14  Friedlander,  Roman  Life  and  Manners,  Vol.  II,  p.  93,  quoting  Falke,  Deutsche 
Trachten-und  Modeweh,  Vol.  I,  p.  278.  Friedlander  thus  emerges  from  his  own 
"period"  for  the  good  purpose  of  showing  that  the  looseness  of  imperial  Rome  was  not 

15  On  all  this  see  Durant,  The  Reformation,  pp.  766-768,  with  many  useful  references  to 
secondary  literature. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

architecture  were  so  directly  in  the  classic  tradition  that  we  tend  to  be  fooled 
by  these  works  of  art,  which  do  look  restrained,  restrained  notably  in  compari- 
son with  the  later  baroque.  But  the  life  behind  the  paintings  and  the  sculptures 
was  unrestrained,  rowdy,  given  to  extremes,  consciously  lived  as  something 
for  the  record.  These  immoralists,  had  they  not  been  orthodox  Latinists, 
might  have  gone  us  one  better  with  that  horrid  prefix  "super."  The  men  of 
the  Renaissance  lived  romantically,  anticipating  and  often  in  real  life  outdoing 
the  romanticism  of  the  Romantics  of  the  nineteenth  century.  These  latter  had 
to  take  out  their  wild  desires,  for  the  most  part,  in  printer's  ink. 

And  always,  right  through  the  Renaissance,  there  is  the  familiar  violence 
that  had  so  long  been  man's  lot.  There  was  the  uncertainty  of  daily  life  in  the 
face  of  the  never  wholly  absent  threat  of  famine,  plague,  the  diseases  of  filth 
and  contagion,  and,  in  most  of  Europe,  the  cold  of  winter.  There  was  the 
still,  by  modem  standards,  most  imperfect  public  order.  Police,  beyond  a  few 
night  watchmen  in  the  cities,  did  not  exist.  Bands  of  beggars  could  be  violent 
and  dangerous;  highwaymen  were  an  accepted  risk  of  travel.  The  atrocious 
punishments  for  what  are  now  minor  crimes — the  famous  example  is  the 
English  penalty  of  death  for  sheep  stealing — added  public  executions  to  the 
violent  flavor  of  all  life  and  clearly  did  little  to  diminish  crime.  It  must  be 
repeated:  however  real  in  the  West  today,  and  especially  in  the  United  States, 
are  the  problems  set  by  violence,  from  juvenile  delinquency  and  adult  gang- 
sterism to  highway  accidents  and  the  fearful  threat  modern  war  presents, 
however  persistent  in  "human  nature"  whatever  drives  men  to  these  violences 
may  seem,  the  fact  remains  that  the  problems  of  violence  in  our  world  are  set 
in  so  different  a  framework  of  social  and  political  institutions,  of  actual 
human  expectation  and  habit,  that  they  are  quite  different  problems.  We 
think  of  much  if  not  all  violence  as  preventable;  the  men  of  the  Middle  Ages 
and  the  Renaissance  did  not.  The  haunting  fear  our  intellectuals  have  of  the 
atom  bomb  is  a  different  thing  from  the  fear  everyone  then  had  of  famine, 
plague,  and  their  fellows. 

After  such  serious  matters,  it  may  seem  trivial  to  come  to  the  topic  of 
cleanliness,  even  if  there  is  an  English  proverb  that  cleanliness  is  next  to 
godliness,  and  should,  therefore,  be  a  concern  of  the  moralist.  But  one  of  the 
many  eddies  of  the  modern  current  of  thought  that  sees  the  Middle  Ages  as 
good  and  later  ages  as  bad  has  a  little  eddy  on  cleanliness.  The  Middle  Ages, 
it  is  maintained — at  least  as  far  as  towns  and  cities  went — were  relatively 
clean,  and  physically  a  good  human  environment,  if  a  trifle  cramped;  people 
took  baths.  With  the  growth  of  the  modern  way  of  life,  and  especially  after 


The  Renaissance 

capitalism,  the  cash  nexus,  the  businessman,  the  mad  scramble  of  the  market 
place  had  taken  over  and  ended  medieval  togetherness  and  mutual  responsi- 
bilities, towns  and  cities  got  crowded,  dirty,  ugly,  and  people  stopped  taking 
bafhs — the  capitalists  would  not  let  them.16 

I  am  afraid  this  thesis  cannot  be  proved.  It  can  hardly  apply  at  all  at  any 
time  to  the  great  majority  of  Europeans,  peasants  whose  housing,  sanitation, 
and  the  like  were  probably  not  very  different  in  1550  from  what  they  had 
been  in  1250 — cramped,  filthy,  unhygienic,  and  not  even  lovely.  Peasants  did 
not  bathe.  As  for  the  towns,  still  walled,  they  had  often  grown  considerably 
by  the  sixteenth  century,  and  were  more  crowded,  and  hence  perhaps  less 
agreeable  to  live  in.  But  I  do  not  think  that  medieval  towns  were  as  clean  and 
pleasant  as  the  lover  of  the  Middle  Ages — who  is  almost  always  a  hater  of 
the  present — makes  them  out  to  have  been.  I  do  not  think  that  the  moral,  or 
immoral,  equivalent  of  the  cash  nexus  was  quite  absent  from  Western  society 
even  in  the  thirteenth  century. 

There  is  not  much  doubt  that  the  West  in  the  sixteenth,  and  right  through 
the  eighteenth  century,  was  what  we  should  consider  very  dirty  and  unsani- 
tary indeed.  Individuals  who  prospered  could  often  live  as  comfortably  and 
as  cleanly  as  they  wished  in  their  own  interiors;  housing  in  the  countryside  in 
Western  Europe  did  clearly  improve  considerably  in  early  modern  times. 
But  urban  filth  was  an  Augean  stable.  The  most  ardent  lover  of  eighteenth- 
century  London — and  there  are  many  of  them  nowadays — knows  well  it  was 
a  stinking  place.17  In  the  Louvre,  and  at  Versailles,  those  great  palace  cities, 
there  was  a  most  inadequate  provision  for  what  Americans  now  call  "rest 
rooms."  The  male  courtiers,  at  least,  commonly  simply  retired  to  a  corner 
behind  a  door;  as  a  result,  the  odor  of  urine  was  a  permanent  thing  in  these 
abodes  of  luxury.  It  seems  farfetched  to  blame  this  on  the  spirit  of  capitalist 

The  historian  of  morals  must  be  careful  to  record  the  moral  reputation  an 
age  has  left  behind  it;  that  reputation  may  seem  to  him  not  entirely  deserved, 
and,  in  particular,  the  reputation  may  rest  on  the  conduct  of  a  class  or  group 
by  no  means  typical  of  other  parts  of  the  society.  But  there  will  always  be 

16  Mr.  Lewis  Mumford  will  do  as  an  example  of  this  attitude.  I  do  not  much  caricature 
his  position  in  my  brief  account.  See  Lewis  Mumford,  The  Culture  of  Cities,  New  York, 
Harcourt,  Brace,  1938,  pp.  42-51. 

17  My  older  readers  may  remember  the  late  Leslie  Howard  in  Berkeley  Square,  a  play 
in  which  the  sentimental  twentieth-century  lover  of  the  eighteenth  gets  transported  back 
to  his  beloved  eighteenth-century  London — and  is  horrified  by  its  stench,  its  dirt,  its 
harsh  class-lines,  its  violence. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

some  fire  behind  the  smoke,  some  truth  in  the  cliche.  The  Renaissance  has 
left  us  the  evil  moral  reputation  of  Italian  life  at  its  height,  and  the  beginnings 
of  the  firm  belief  among  Northerners,  at  least,  that  in  Western  Europe  the 
distinction  between  North  and  South  is  no  mere  geographical  cleavage,  but  a 
moral  cleavage. 

The  best-known  exhibit  of  Renaissance  immorality  is  the  papal  court 
under  popes  like  Alexander  VI  and  Julius  II.  No  sensible  person  nowadays 
would  think  of  trying  to  deny  the  personal  immorality  of  the  conduct  of 
Alexander  Borgia,  which  is  quite  down  to  that  of  Clovis,  nor  the  worldliness 
and  corruption,  the  shocking  struggle  for  prize,  of  the  papal  court  in  much 
of  the  fifteenth  and  sixteenth  centuries.  One  need  not  consult  Protestant  or 
freethinking  historians:  the  great  Catholic  historian  Ludwig  Pastor  is  quite 
frank  about  it  all,  indignant  as  a  good  man  should  be,  and  aware  as  a  historian 
should  be  that  no  evil  is  quite  unprecedented.  Homo  sapiens  has  been  on 
earth  enough  to  give  a  full  indication  of  his  capacities  for  both  good  and  evil.18 

A  sounding  almost  anywhere  in  contemporary  writing  should  convince 
the  reader  that  this  Italian  Renaissance,  for  all  its  glories,  was  a  violent  and 
immoral  age.  Almost  any  page  of  Cellini  will  do  for  the  artist.  Here  is  a 
passage  from  Boccaccio's  Decameron  which  shows  a  breakdown  of  morals 
and  morale  far  worse  than  what  Thucydides  tells  us  about  the  comparable 
plague  at  Athens: 

Some  thought  that  moderate  living  and  the  avoidance  of  all  superfluity  would 
preserve  them  from  the  epidemic.  They  formed  small  communities,  living  en- 
tirely separate  from  everybody  else.  They  shut  themselves  up  in  houses  where 
there  were  no  sick,  eating  the  finest  food  and  drinking  the  best  wine  very  tem- 
perately, avoiding  all  excess,  allowing  no  news  or  discussion  of  death  and  sick- 
ness, and  passing  the  time  in  music  and  suchlike  pleasures.  Others  thought  just  the 
opposite.  They  thought  the  sure  cure  for  the  plague  was  to  drink  and  be  merry, 
to  go  about  singing  and  amusing  themselves,  satisfying  every  appetite  they  could, 
laughing  and  jesting  at  what  happened.  They  put  then-  words  into  practice,  spent 
day  and  night  going  from  tavern  to  tavern,  drinking  immoderately,  or  went  into 
other  people's  houses,  doing  only  those  things  which  pleased  them.  This  they 
could  easily  do  because  everyone  felt  doomed  and  had  abandoned  his  property, 
so  that  most  houses  became  common  property  and  any  stranger  who  went  in 
made  use  of  them  as  if  he  had  owned  them.  And  with  all  this  bestial  behaviour, 
they  avoided  the  sick  as  much  as  possible. 

In  this  suffering  and  misery  of  our  city,  the  authority  of  human  and  divine 

is  The  reader  should  dip,  at  least,  into  one  of  the  fifteenth-  or  sixteenth-century  volumes 
of  Ludwig  Pastor,  History  of  the  Popes,  English  translation,  40  volumes,  St.  Louis, 
Herder,  1910-1955.  This  is  sober,  conscientious  historical  writing,  in  no  sense  alarmist. 


The  Renaissance 

laws  almost  disappeared,  for,  like  other  men,  the  ministers  and  the  executors  of 
the  laws  were  all  dead  or  sick  or  shut  up  with  their  families,  so  that  no  duties 
were  carried  out.  Every  man  was  therefore  able  to  do  as  he  pleased. 

Many  others  adopted  a  course  of  life  midway  between  the  two  just  described 
They  did  not  restrict  their  victuals  so  much  as  the  former,  nor  allow  themselves 
to  be  drunken  and  dissolute  like  the  latter,  but  satisfied  their  appetites  moderately. 
They  did  not  shut  themselves  up,  but  went  about,  carrying  flowers  or  scented 
herbs  or  perfumes  in  their  hands,  in  the  belief  that  it  was  an  excellent  thing  to 
comfort  the  brain  with  such  odours:  for  the  whole  air  was  infected  with  the  smell 
of  dead  bodies,  of  sick  persons  and  medicines. 

Others  again  held  a  still  more  cruel  opinion,  which  they  thought  would  keep 
them  safe.  They  said  that  the  only  medicine  against  the  plague-stricken  was  to  go 
right  away  from  them.  Men  and  women,  convinced  of  this  and  caring  about 
nothing  but  themselves,  abandoned  their  own  city,  their  own  houses,  their  dwell- 
ings, their  relatives,  their  property,  and  went  abroad  or  at  least  to  the  country 
round  Florence,  as  if  God's  wrath  in  punishing  men's  wickedness  with  this  plague 
would  not  follow  them  but  strike  only  those  who  remained  within  the  walls  of  the 
city,  or  as  if  they  thought  nobody  in  the  city  would  remain  alive  and  that  its  last 
hour  had  come.19 

Finally,  here  are  a  few  entries  from  the  diary  of  the  Florentine  Luca 
Landucci.  They  are,  like  our  newspaper  stories  of  today,  accounts  of  what 
the  reader  most  wants  to  read,  the  horror  story;  they  are  not  sociological 
studies.  Still,  this  is  surely  a  world  far  more  violent,  more  insecure,  more 
"natural"  and  undisciplined,  more  immoral.,  than  ours: 

21st  June.  We  heard  that  the  French  had  gone  vuth  our  troops  to  encamp  before 
Pisa,  and  the  Pisans  had  fired  upon  the  French  and  killed  several  of  them.  The 
French  leader  came  here,  and  it  was  said  that  the  French  went  in  and  out  of  Pisa 
as  they  chose.  Treachery  was  suspected,  and  this  suspicion  was  justified. 

At  this  time  the  plague  appeared  in  several  houses,  and  many  people  were  suf- 
fering from  French  boils. 

On  this  day  certain  women  came  out  of  Pisa  clothed  only  in  then-  chemises;  but 
our  troops  took  them,  suspecting  that  they  carried  messages,  and  decided  to  search 
them.  The  soldiers  were  so  shameless  as  to  search  them  to  their  skins,  and  they 
found  letters  to  the  Pope's  son.  Think  what  wars  bring  about,  the  innumerable 
cases  that  happen,  and  the  sin  of  those  who  cause  it  all. 

At  this  time  we  heard  that  there  had  been  a  tumult  at  Perugia,  and  that  the 
Baglioni  had  been  expelled,  100  men  having  been  killed.  Also  that  the  Sienese 
were  in  arms,  and  that  the  father-in-law  of  Petruccio  had  been  killed. 

i»  Trans,  by  R.  Aldington,  New  York,  Covici,  Friede,  1930,  pp.  3-4.  The  reader  should 
go  to  the  whole  of  this  introduction  to  the  First  Day. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 
llth  August.  Pistoia  rose  in  arms,  on  account  of  internal  disputes. 

During  these  days  all  the  people  here  were  discontented,  chiefly  because  of  the 
barzello,  which  had  been  very  hard  upon  them,  and  also  because  they  could  see 
that  no  conquests  were  made,  and  there  would  be  large  costs  to  pay.  The  Pisans 
had  sacked  Altopascio  and  taken  Libraf  atta. 

17th  August.  We  heard  that  the  Pistolese  were  still  fighting  amongst  themselves, 
and  that  150  men  had  been  killed,  and  houses  burnt  down;  and  the  church  of  San 
Domenico  was  burnt  down.  The  people  from  all  the  country  round,  and  from 
the  mountains,  rushed  to  the  town;  and  it  was  said  besides  that  Messer  Giovanni 
Bentivogli  had  sent  men  on  foot  and  horseback. 

19th  August.  We  heard  that  the  Pisans  had  taken  the  bastion,  and  killed  everyone 
in  it,  and  that  they  were  encamped  at  Rosignano;  and  our  leaders  did  not  send  to 
relieve  any  place,  it  almost  seeming  as  if  they  were  stunned.  We  were  without 
soldiers,  in  fact,  or  to  speak  more  correctly,  with  but  few;  their  number  not 
sufficing  to  go  to  the  succour  of  a  place  when  needed,  so  that  we  were  between 
the  devil  and  the  deep  sea.  It  was  a  very  distressing  and  perilous  time,  so  much 
so  that  on  the  20th  August,  the  day  of  San  Bernardo,  the  bells  of  the  Palagio 
were  not  allowed  to  be  rung,  on  account  of  the  dangers  within  and  without;  but 
God  has  always  helped  this  city. 

30th  August.  Soldiers  were  hired  and  sent  to  Pistoia  and  to  Livorno  and  to  gar- 
rison the  castles. 

1st  September.  Many  people  passed  through  here  on  then:  way  to  the  Jubilee. 

5th  September.  We  heard  that  the  Turks  had  taken  Corfu  and  Modone,  and  had 
killed  everyone,  and  razed  Modone  to  the  ground.  And  it  was  said  besides  that  the 
Turks  had  defeated  the  Venetian  fleet  and  captured  it;  and  that  30  thousand 
persons  had  been  killed,  on  board  the  vessels  and  in  the  cities  together.20 

Something  of  this  laxity,  corruption,  and  violence  is  visible  in  other  parts 
of  Europe  than  Italy.  The  fifteenth  century,  notably,  is  everywhere  one  of 
social  unrest,  endemic  violence,  of  widespread  fears  and  pleasures  of  the 
senses,  an  age  that  seems  to  deserve  Sorokin's  label  for  our  own:  sensate. 
And  in  the  sixteenth  century,  the  Northern  Renaissance  itself,  if  it  does  not 
equal  the  achievements  of  the  picturesquely  sinful  Italians,  is  not  an  age,  even 
in  those  homes  of  virtue,  England,  the  Low  Countries,  and  Germany,  of 
chastity  and  simple  moral  virtue  among  the  great.  Elizabethan  England  would 
have — I  almost  wrote  should  have — shocked  Victorian  England. 

20  A  Florentine  Diary,  trans,  by  Alice  De  Rosen  Jervis,  London,  Dent,  1927,  pp.  170, 
171,  172-173.  The  "French  boils"  are  almost  certainly  syphilis,  a  new  disease  which 
people  of  a  given  state  usually  named  from  their  favorite  enemy.  The  year  is  1500. 


The  Renaissance 

But,  though  as  Protestants  many  of  us  register  firmly  Italian  immorality 
for  these  centuries,  general  opinion  in  the  West  has  been  willing  to  forgive  the 
Renaissance  its  sins,  as  it  has  not  been  willing  to  forgive  imperial  Rome,  or 
Byzantium,  or — much  much  less  sinful,  in  fact — the  aristocracies  of  the 
ancien  regime  in  France  and  her  imitators.  Partly,  no  doubt,  we  are,  in  spite 
of  ourselves,  heirs  of  the  Victorians,  who  held  that,  particularly  for  the 
Renaissance,  great  Art  redeems  everything.  We  feel,  and  perhaps  not  without 
justification,  that  the  unprincipled  struggles,  the  exaggeration  of  pride  into 
virtu,  the  romantic,  Faustian  effort  to  bring  back  to  life  classic,  Apollonian 
Greece  and  Rome,  the  tremendousness,  the  sheer  hyperbolic  drive  of  these 
men  of  the  Renaissance,  was  somehow  nonetheless  not  without  a  most  para- 
doxical aesthetic  measure  and  restraint.  (Paul  Bunyan,  pure  and  revolting 
hyperbole,  is  no  Renaissance  character.)  Their  saving  graces  make  their 
immoral  conduct  somehow  fruitful,  at  bottom,  moral.  Perhaps  more  soundly,, 
we  judge,  from  the  vantage  point  of  time  past,  these  disorderly  centuries  of 
the  late  Middle  Ages  and  the  Renaissance  to  have  been  signs  of  an  age  of 
growth,  of  progress,  those  of  imperial  Rome  and  Byzantium  to  have  been 
signs  of  decay  and  death. 

As  to  the  second  major  aspect  of  the  reputation  of  the  Renaissance,  the 
establishment  of  a  division  between  a  moral  North  and  an  immoral  South,  we 
must  note  that  Northern  opinion  greatly  exaggerates  for  the  fifteenth  and 
sixteenth  centuries  the  reality  and  degree  of  that  difference.  Nevertheless,  the 
division  is  by  no  means  wholly  unreal.  Calvinism,  whether  you  think  it  eco- 
nomically or  spiritually  determined,  took  root  in  the  North  as  it  never  did  in 
the  South.  The  South,  as  I  have  insisted  above,  has  had  its  Puritan  rebels,  its 
crowds  inspired  by  brief  and  quite  unsunny  passions;  it  has  never  had  a  large 
middle  class  endowed  or  afflicted  with  ''middle-class  morality."  There  is  that 
much  truth  in  the  Mignon  complex,  even  in  the  forms  it  takes  with  a  Norman 
Douglas  or  a  Robert  Graves. 

Moreover,  to  balance  the  laxities  and  the  corrupting  rivalries  of  court  life 
and  high  politics,  there  was  throughout  the  North  an  aristocracy  and  gentry, 
formed  in  just  these  centuries  from  the  fourteenth  through  the  sixteenth, 
varying  certainly  in  its  ideals  and  conduct  in  different  lands,  but,  on  the 
whole,  as  I  shall  point  out  in  the  next  chapter,  a  disciplined,  serious-minded, 
conscientious,  privileged  class,  much  maligned  in  our  tradition.  The  English 
landed  gentry,  the  Dutch  nobility,  the  French  provincial  noblesse,  the  Prus- 
sian Junkers — these  were  not  much  like  the  Italian  upper  classes  of  the 
Renaissance.  They  were,  substantially,  lions,  not  foxes,  and  they  as  much  as 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

the  Protestant  reform  and  the  rising  middle  classes  gave  to  the  next  few  cen- 
turies of  European  life  its  stamp  of  high  seriousness. 


What  we  are  dealing  with  in  this  chapter,  however,  exceeds  the  bounds  of 
private  morality,  of  a  history  of  morals  taken  in  a  narrow  sense.  What  seems 
to  be  happening  in  these  centuries  is  a  widespread  disturbance,  a  loosening 
of  the  old  steady  ways,  a  social  syndrome  of  the  kind  that  the  philosopher  of 
history  calls  by  some  phrase  suggesting  death  or  decay,  with  or  without  over- 
tones of  coming  rebirth.  Intellectuals  of  our  own  day,  feeling  that  we  ourselves 
are  on  some  horrifying  descent,  have  been  fascinated  with  syndromes  of  this 
sort  in  the  past  of  civilization.  We  do  not  understand  them;  we  are  not  even 
sure  that  we  can  identify  them.  After  all,  the  West  survived  this  crisis  of  the 
fifteenth  and  sixteenth  centuries — if  there  was  a  crisis.  Perhaps  what  hap- 
pened was  simple  enough:  wealth  increased  markedly  over  these  centuries 
and,  however  bad  the  condition  of  the  masses  may  have  been,  a  very  great 
number  of  people  were  by  1500  able  to  do  something  besides  work,  eat,  sleep, 
and  procreate.  They  could  afford  luxuries,  afford  to  play,  afford  to  sin;  and 
this  they  proceeded  to  do,  and  to  worry  vocally  about  it. 

At  the  very  least,  this  innocent  economic  interpretation  must  be  accom- 
panied by  recognition  that  for  many  whose  wealth  permitted  the  pleasures  of 
the  flesh,  as  well  as  the  pleasures  of  high  competition,  of  virtu,  there  was  a 
haunting  memory  of  the  fact  of  sin.  The  tensions,  the  excitements,  the  tor- 
tured awareness  of  the  macabre,  the  excessiveness  of  the  age  must  have  their 
theater  of  action  in  the  human  soul.  But  we  can  go  much  further.  Surely  new 
and  increasing  wealth  and  its  consequences  have  their  place  in  the  syndrome, 
but  so,  too,  must  a  major  fact  of  the  history  of  ideas,  and  therefore  of  the 
history  of  morals:  from  the  fourteenth  century  on  there  was  slowly  formed 
a  new  cosmology,  a  new  attitude  toward  man's  place  in  the  universe — "new," 
as  always  in  human  affairs,  implying  much  survival  of  "old" — a  new  view  of 
reality  which  could  not  always  or  readily  or  forever  sit  comfortably  along  with 
the  old  medieval  synthesis  in  the  mind  of  any  one  normal  man.  We  shall  be 
much  concerned  with  this  new  view  of  reality — better,  new  views  of  reality 
— for  the  rest  of  this  book.  Summary  of  so  complex  a  thing  is  impossible;  we 
may  for  the  moment  content  ourselves  with  a  good  symbol,  the  title  of  a 
book  by  the  late  V.  Gordon  Childe,  a  distinguished  Australian  anthropologist 


The  Renaissance 

and  non-Christian:  Man  Makes  Himself.2*  I  feel  sure  there  are  no  medieval 
books  with  titles  remotely  like  this. 

With  the  Reformation  and  the  Renaissance  we  have  at  last  come  to  the 
end  of  the  Middle  Ages.  An  older  way  of  looking  at  historical  periods  did  see 
in  both  Reformation  and  Renaissance  the  modern  age  born  fully  formed, 
ready  for  life,  liberty,  and  the  pursuit  of  happiness.  There  is  no  use  quarreling 
over  so  adjustable  a  matter  as  a  historical  period.  It  is  a  long  way  from  the 
thirteenth  century  to  the  eighteenth  century,  and  in  all  these  years  the  Middle 
Ages  as  a  way  of  life  was  slowly  giving  way  to  what  we  call  the  modern,  or, 
in  Toynbee's  despairing  words  for  our  own  contemporary  generation,  the 
"post-Modern."  The  historian  who  focuses  on  international  politics,  national 
history,  art,  letters,  technology,  will  naturally  emphasize  quite  different  dra- 
matically notable  points  of  break  between  medieval  and  modern,  or  insist 
there  is  no  such  break,  but  only  a  long  slow  transition.  For  the  historian  of 
morals,  however,  the  break,  though  far  from  sudden,  comes  rather  in  the 
seventeenth  and  eighteenth  centuries  than  earlier,  and  it  comes  out  fully  only 
when  those  two  great  factors  in  the  modern  Western  moral  outlook,  the 
nation-state  and  the  complex  of  science,  technology,  and  business  enterprise 
have  come  into  being,  and  man  has  before  him  the  alluring  promises  of  the 
religion  of  the  Enlightenment  with  its  doctrine  of  progress. 

There  remains,  in  a  brief  retrospect  of  the  Middle  Ages  from  the  point 
of  view  of  the  historian  of  morals,  a  whole  interrelated  set  of  attitudes,  theses, 
theories,  and  just  plain  notions,  which  add  up  to  the  view  that,  despite  their 
violence,  social  and  economic  inequalities,  superstitions,  poverty,  and  all  the 
rest,  the  way  of  life  of  the  Middle  Ages  was  somehow  more  suited  to  la  con- 
dition  humalne  than  our  own,  that  they  were,  or  at  least  had,  a  Golden  Age. 
Some  form  or  other  of  this  view,  though  it  is  still  almost  unknown  to  many 
Americans,  has  had  a  great  revival  in  our  own  day,  a  revival  quite  different 
from  what  seems  to  us  the  naive  and  romantic  "Gothic  revival"  of  the  early 
nineteenth  century.  Even  in  this  brief  survey  we  have  come  across  the  names 
of  several  associated  with  one  form  or  another  of  this  view — even  if  their 
emphasis  is  often  less  on  exalting  the  medieval  than  on  damning  the  modern. 
Weber,  Fromm,  Tawney,  Riesman,  Sorokin,  Lewis  Mumford,  James  Joseph 
Walsh — but  the  list  could  be  very  long. 

Few  of  these  writers  would  dare,  or  perhaps  care,  to  assert  frankly  that 

21  London,  Watts,  1941  (1st  ed.  1936).  This  book  is  a  very  good  brief  specimen  of  an 
attitude,  a  world  view,  we  shall  be  much  concerned  with,  under  the  broad  name  of  En- 
lightenment It  is  available  in  a  paperback,  New  American  Library,  Mentor  Books. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

men  were  "happier"  in  1250  than  in  1950.  Some,  though  not  the  best  bal- 
anced of  them,  have  asserted  that  the  morals  of  1250  were  better  than  those 
of  1950.  The  best  of  them,  I  think,  assert  something  like  this:  the  "organically 
structured"  society  of  the  Middle  Ages,  with  its  peasant  communities,  ac- 
cepted social  hierarchies  and  economic  inequalities,  or  a  relatively  stable  set 
of  peck  orders,  if  you  insist,  tradition-guided  nexus  of  mutual  obligations, 
guilds,  "just  prices,"  common  membership  in  the  great  community  of  Catholic 
Christendom,  common  acceptance  of  Christian  theism — this  society  enabled 
men  to  live  more  serenely,  securely,  normally  than  can  we  in  the  mad  free- 
for-all  of  modem  society,  where  many,  many  men  are  insecure  in  status,  inse- 
cure in  means  of  livelihood,  insecure  in  standards  of  taste,  insecure  in  man- 
ners, insecure  in  faith. 

First  of  all,  I  must  insist  that  the  medieval  synthesis  so  admired  lasted 
briefly  indeed,  hardly  more  than  the  thirteenth  century.  From  the  Black  Death 
of  the  fourteenth  century  right  on  through  the  Renaissance,  the  modern  age, 
with  its  cash  nexus,  its  economic  growth,  its  new  dynastic  states,  its  overseas 
expansion,  is  in  the  making.  In  these  centuries  the  medieval  Christian  world 
view  is  slowly  undermined  for  many  intellectuals,  though  only  in  the  late 
seventeenth  century  does  another  world  view,  which  I  have  called  the  religion 
of  the  Enlightenment,  fully  emerge.  Those  two  world  views,  the  Christian  and 
the  Enlightened,  are  different  enough,  as  I  hope  to  show.  What  is  really 
puzzling  is  how  much  difference  the  holding  of  these  different  views  has  made 
in  human  conduct.  I  feel  very  sure  that  it  has  made  a  difference;  but  I  am 
quite  as  sure  that  that  difference  is  exaggerated  in  our  tradition.  We  are — if 
I  may  be  permitted  a  methodological  aside — quite  unable  to  measure  human 
differences  as  we  measure  chemical  differences.  Any  culture  is  at  least  a 
compound,  indeed  a  mixture;  but  we  cannot  measure  its  components,  and 
can  only  try  quite  crudely  to  describe  them. 

The  world  view  of  any  culture  is  but  a  component  of  the  total  culture;  yet 
from  the  inside,  even  to  a  degree  from  the  outside,  we  think  and  feel,  we 
experience,  that  culture  through  its  world  view  in  a  way  you  may  find  sug- 
gested in  such  terms  as  "holistic,"  "Gestalt,"  "style,"  "form."  So  experienced, 
even  vicariously,  as  the  historian  must  always  experience,  the  West  of  1250 
is  certainly  very  different  from  the  world  of  1750.  Yet  I  do  not  feel  confident 
that  the  questions  suggested  by  this  contrast  of  medieval  and  modern  can  be 
answered  at  all  out  of  our  analytical  and  empirical  knowledge.  Here  I  wish 
to  do  no  more  than  point  out  that  not  the  least  of  the  difficulties  in  our  way 
is  a  grave  and  obvious  contrast  between  the  real  and  the  ideal  in  medieval 


The  Renaissance 

life  itself,  a  contrast  that  can  be  at  least  partially  established  empirically.  // 
medieval  life  were  what  it  seems  in  analysis  of  its  "values,"  usocial  structure," 
and  "world  view"  and  so  on,  one  might  grant  that  men  were  then  secure, 
serene,  balanced,  "human,"  in  a  way  they  are  not  now.  But  we  know  the 
violence,  the  uncertainties,  the  breakdowns  of  nice  theories  of  mutual  obliga- 
tion, the  peasant  wars,  the  cruelties,  the  fanaticism,  the  ignorance  and  super- 
stition— I  refer  the  reader  once  more  to  Zoe  Oldenbourg's  admirable  The 
World  Is  Not  Enough — and  the  rest  of  the  long  tale  of  suffering  of  life  then 
as  it  was  really  lived.  I  am  not  sure  that  a  degree  of  unanimity — it  was  only  a 
degree,  for  heresies  were  endemic — on  matters  of  religion  was  quite  a  balance 
for  all  these  uncertainties. 

We  are  at  the  dead  end  that  seems  always  to  come  when  one  tries  to  test 
broad  theories  of  moral  development  in  the  West,  a  dead  end  blocked  more 
firmly  by  the  fact  that  such  theories,  divorced  from  transcendental  a  priori 
standards  to  measure  development,  progress,  or  retrogression,  tend  in  our 
time  to  drift  into  the  impossible  attempt  to  measure  whether  men  were 
"happier,"  "more  comfortable,"  "better  off"  in  the  past  than  now.  The  at- 
tempt is  impossible  if  it  is  made  with  purely  naturalistic  standards,  if  the 
process  of  moral  development  is  judged  as  though  the  process  itself  auto- 
matically gives  us  standards  with  which  to  judge  its  results.  If  you  judge  the 
course  of  history  by  standards  ultimately  beyond  history,  as  the  full  Christian 
must,  you  may  then  at  least  say,  not  that  medieval  men  were  happier  than  we 
are,  but  that  they  were  better  than  we  are,  for  they  knew,  they  believed,  what 
millions  of  us  cannot  bring  ourselves  to  know  and  believe,  that  there  is  some- 
thing beyond  history.  Within  history,  men  seem  always  essentially  the  same 
in  their  differences,  and  Talleyrand  quite  irrefutable:  Plus  ga  change,  plus 
c'est  la  meme  chose.22 

22  "The  more  it  changes,  the  more  it's  the  same  thing."  The  attribution  to  Talleyrand  is 
uncertain,  but  appropriate. 


The  Seventeenth  Century 

IF  THE  LATER  MIDDLE  AGES  may  be  regarded  as  the  seedbed  of  modern 
Western  culture,  the  sixteenth  century  as  the  bare  beginnings  of  sprouting, 
then  in  the  seventeenth  century,  one  may  say,  the  plant  begins  to  show  above 
ground.  The  metaphor  is  imperfect,  for  in  the  long  slow  process  of  change  in 
human  culture  so  little  disappears  entirely;  the  Middle  Ages  are  still  alive  in 
our  midst — and  not  merely  in  some  rural  pocket  in  Europe.  The  Hearst 
property  at  San  Simeon  was  certainly  not  the  mere  "ranch"  it  was  called,  nor 
even  a  modern  rich  man's  "estate" — it  was  a  barony.  Baron  Hearst — himself 
a  human  palimpsest — was  a  medieval  lord,  a  man  of  virtii,  a  freebooter,  a  late 
nineteenth-  and  early  twentieth-century  American  entrepreneurial  survival  of 
the  Gilded  Age.  The  personality  is  indeed  a  persistent  Western,  if  not  human, 
one;  the  total  cultural  pattern,  I  repeat,  seems  to  me  to  involve  a  social 
process  hard  to  put  in  words,  even  in  figures  of  speech.  The  central  point  is 
this  recapitulation,  this  reviving,  this  persistence  of  a  pattern  from  the  past. 
Of  course,  the  persistence  is  often  deliberate,  a  conscious  harking  back,  in  its 
weakest  and  perhaps  final  form  no  more  than  the  intellectual's  peevish  regrets 
in  the  style  of  Edwin  Arlington  Robinson's  Minniver  Cheevy.  But  I  find  terms 
like  "archaism"  (Toynbee),  "fossil"  (Guerard,  Toynbee),  and  the  heavily 
metaphysical  "pseudo-morphism"  of  Spengler  unsatisfactory,  for  they  all 
imply  a  conscious  f akery,  or  a  mere  seeming,  an  unreality  by  no  means  always 
present  in  this  little-understood  process  of  keeping  (not  just  reviving)  the  past 
in  the  present. 

Three  aspects  of  modern  culture  do  show  themselves  clearly  in  the  West 


The  Seventeenth  Century 

is  seventeenth  century:  the  new  state,  without  which  our  sentiments  to- 
the  territorial  in-group  could  hardly  have  taken  the  form  we  call  "na- 
lism";  the  new  natural  science,  without  which  our  modern  metaphysical 
nalism  might  have  been  as  shallowly  rooted  and  as  limited  to  a  small 
ectual  class  as  was  the  Greco-Roman,  and  without  which  our  modern 
omic  and  technological  development  would  have  been  impossible;  the 
Puritanism,  without  which — and  to  hold  this  one  need  not  accept  every- 
5  Weber  and  his  followers  have  written — science,  technology,  and  entre- 
surship  could  not  have  combined  as  they  did  in  our  modern  world.  The 
sr  who  has  persisted  this  far  need  hardly  be  reminded  that  none  of  these 
:ts  of  culture  are  "new"  in  any  absolute  sense,  in,  for  example,  the  sense 
prettily  illustrated  by  the  astronomer's  nova,  the  new  star  that  appears 
e  nothing  at  all  had  been  visible  in  the  blackness. 

>uritanism  is  so  immediately  a  part  of  the  ^hole  Protestant  Reformation 
I  have  dealt  with  it  under  Chapter  VTII  above;  but  even  for  Puritanism, 
aoted  there,  the  alliance  with  capitalist  commerce  and  industry,  the  new 
sr  of  the  state,  all  that  was  to  give  our  modern  Western  world  its  quite 
ecedented  mastery  of  material  resources,  is  not  at  all  obviously  begun  in 
ixteenth  century,  nor  indeed  very  conspicuously  even  in  the  seventeenth, 
hall  encounter  this  Puritanism  again,  in  the  English  eighteenth  and  nine- 
h  centuries  when  as  "dissent"  or  "nonconformity''  or  "Victorian  moral- 
it  has  really  outgrown  its  medieval  beginnings.  Here  we  must  consider 
me  length  the  new  state  and  the  new  science.  But  we  shall  conclude  with 
>ral  ideal  most  characteristic  of  the  century,  one  which  flourished  then  at 
sight,  that  of  the  noblesse  of  the  old  regime  in  the  West. 


;annot  in  a  book  of  this  sort  concern  ourselves  with  the  details  of  the 
and  varied  process  by  which,  from  out  of  the  "feudal  disintegration"  of 
'  medieval  times,  states  already  by  1500  so  firmly  "sovereign"  and  so 
3rn  as  England,  France,  and  Spain  had  grown,  or  been  made.  The  proc- 
surely  by  no  means  well  understood,  is  by  no  means  without  interest  to 
listorian  of  morals.  If,  as  some  think,  the  central  moral  problem  of  the 
twentieth  century  is  how  to  prevent  war  among  "sovereign"  states,  it 
it  be  possible  to  learn  something  from  the  way  in  which  these  sovereign 
s  came  to  preserve  peace  within  their  own  boundaries.  Within  what  by 
)  had  become  France,  it  had  been,  only  a  few  generations  earlier,  legal 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

and  moral — not  contrary  to  the  commandment  "Thou  shalt  not  kill" — for  a 
Burgundian  to  kill  a  "Frenchman"  in  organized  warfare.  Within  the  new 
France,  it  had  become  murder  for  a  Burgundian  to  kill  a  Frenchman,  for  the 
old  duchy  had  been  incorporated  in  the  French  state.  And  only  a  few  genera- 
tions earlier  yet,  what  the  historian  calls  "private  warfare,"  wars  between 
mere  feudal  barons,  had  been  fitting  and  proper. 

Now  much  that  is  central  to  any  understanding  of  Western  political  moral- 
ity is  wrapped  up  in  the  processes  that  made  France  out  of  a  feudal  congeries. 
Did  the  Burgundian,  or  the  Breton,  or  the  Gascon  feel  that  he  had  been 
forced  into  becoming  a  French  subject?  Was  the  process  one  of  pure  violence 
on  the  part  of  the  French  crown?  If  so,  why  was  it  so  successful?  Or,  perhaps 
the  most  fundamental  problem  of  all,  was  the  process  of  uniting  France — or 
England,  or  Spain,  or  even  those  late-comers  to  national  unity  Germany  and 
Italy — a  "natural"  one,  one  fairly  put  as  "growth,"  one  that  therefore  had  to 
"come  about"  in  due  and  often  very  slow  course?  Or  was  it  an  "artificial" 
one,  one  best  put  as  "making,"  one  that,  therefore,  we  can  say  was  "planned" 
and  put  through  by  human  conscious  effort,  and  that  can  perhaps  be  copied 
by  us  and  our  children  on  an  international,  even  on  a  world,  scale?1 

We  shall  here  take  the  sovereign  state  of  early  modern  times  as  already 
formed.  The  degree  of  unity  under  the  crown — or,  in  a  few  instances,  mostly 
surviving  medieval  city-states  like  those  of  the  Hansa,  under  the  republic — 
varied  greatly.  But  everywhere,  even  in  Germany,  the  new  state  is  to  be 
found;  and  wherever  it  is  to  be  found,  it  demands  the  final  earthly  allegiance 
of  all  its  inhabitants.  There  survived  everywhere  a  great  deal  of  the  old  medi- 
eval particularism,  and  in  terms  of  culture,  and  often  of  pure  tourist  bait,  there 
still  survives  today  much  of  the  variety  of  old.  But  this  new  state  was  the 
matrix  of  the  modern  nation-state,  the  legal  entity  within  which  what  we  call 
nationalism  was  to  develop,  adding  to  the  state  as  ultimate  legal  authority 
the  claim  of  the  state  as  ultimate  moral  authority,  indeed,  ultimate  teleological 

Long  before  with  the  great  French  Revolution  of  1789,  however,  this 
focusing  of  the  moral  and  emotional  loyalties  of  citizen  (or  subject)  on  the 

1  The  reader  no  doubt  knows  my  own  answer — it  was  both  natural  and  artificial.  But 
the  sorting  out  of  the  two,  and  the  gradings  in  between,  is  a  very  difficult  matter.  I  have 
tried  in  a  little  book,  From  Many  One  (Harvard  University  Press,  1948),  to  sketch  out 
the  importance  of  the  problem,  and  suggest  possible  lines  of  approach.  There  lies  in 
the  offing,  of  course,  that  particular  form  of  the  old  problem  of  determinism  which  has 
reached  an  acute  form  in  our  own  day  as  "historicism":  Were  both  France  of  today  and 
Germany  of  today  "determined"  by  Charlemagne,  or,  for  that  matter,  by  Adam  and 


The  Seventeenth  Century 

nation-state  had  become  evident,  the  new  state — call  it  as  yet  no  more  than 
the  dynastic  state — had  set  in  a  new  and  still-troublesome  form  an  old  moral 
problem.  This  is  the  problem  that  confronted  Antigone  (see  above,  p.  103), 
the  problem  of  conflict  between  moral  and  political  law.  The  statesmen  of 
these  early  modern  centuries  set  up  for  the  new  state  the  claim  to  be  above 
the  accepted  ethical  principles  that  were  supposed  to  guide  the  conduct  of 
the  individual  in  his  private  life.  There  is  certainly  a  link  between  this  modern 
doctrine  of  "reason  of  state"  and  the  old  Greek  doctrine,  or  better,  perhaps, 
traditional  assumption  that  life  of  and  in  the  polis  is  the  realization  of  the 
beautiful-and-good,  that,  in  our  terms,  the  state  is  the  supreme  moral  end  of 
life.  It  is  clear,  however,  from  the  Antigone,  and  from  Aristotle's  Politics,  that 
even  in  antiquity  this  doctrine  by  no  means  banished  the  difficulty  in  a  con- 
crete case:  What  course  of  action  is  in  fact  the  one  consonant  with  the  su- 
preme good  which  is  the  state? 

To  this  last  phase  of  the  problem  some  distinguished  leaders  of  the  new 
dynastic  state — I  am  simplifying  here,  but  not,  I  hope,  distorting — gave  what 
was  essentially  the  reply  Plato  makes  Thrasymachus  give  in  the  Republic  to 
the  question  What  is  justice?  Reason  of  state  dictates  as  the  right  course,  the 
moral  course,  what  human  reason,  working  on  the  stuff  of  experience,  judges 
to  be  the  most  likely  to  succeed.  And  what  is  success?  Well,  for  Cardinal 
Richelieu,  perhaps  the  most  representative  exponent  of  reason  of  state,  in 
theory  in  his  famous  testament,  in  fact  in  his  whole  unpriestly  and  un-Chris- 
tian  life,  success  would  be  something  like  this:  first  and  foremost,  the  reten- 
tion and  improvement  by  France  of  its  newly  acquired  position  as  leader  in 
the  struggle  for  prize  of  Western  international  politics,  its  hegemony  (what 
the  United  States  now  has  in  the  same  scramble  of  world  politics) ;  this  posi- 
tion to  be  maintained  if  possible  by  diplomacy,  if  necessary  by  war;  the 
means,  whether  diplomacy  or  war,  to  be  the  most  efficient,  the  most  likely  to 
succeed,  regardless  of  how  many  ethical  principles  are  violated,  and  how 
often;  similar  "rational"  (or  pragmatic  or  instrumental)  tests  to  be  applied  to 
internal  or  domestic  French  policies,  always  with  the  aim  of  making  the  entity 
France  strongest  among  other  states  in  the  struggle  for  prize,  which  is  so 
much,  much  more  than  the  struggle  for  life  or  survival;  this  victory  to  be 
achieved,  these  tests  to  be  applied,  always  with  a  prudent,  if  possible  well- 
disguised,  disregard  for  the  principles  of  morality.  Richelieu,  in  fact,  is  a  better 
representative  of  reason  of  state  than  the  better-known  Machiavelli,  whose 
name  springs  naturally  to  one's  attention  as  a  representative  immoralist  of 
high  politics.  Machiavelli,  for  all  his  defiance  of  Christian  morality,  did  have 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

as  a  test  of  success,  even  for  his  Prince,  a  state  in  which  the  good  life  showed 
traces  of  the  old  pagan  ideals  of  the  beautiful-and-good.  Richelieu  seems  to 
have  wanted  no  more  than  that  France,  that  haunting,  not-quite  abstraction, 
the  France  he  ran,  the  France  that  was  his  team,  should  place  first  and  stay 
first  in  the  Big  League. 

What  all  this  meant  in  terms  of  human  careers  is  the  creation  of  a  rela- 
tively small  but  well-trained  class  of  civil  servants,  diplomatists,  and  domestic 
administrators,  really  dedicated  to  the  success  of  the  state,  the  rational,  the 
efficient  success  of  the  state.  They  were  to  prove  skillful  indeed,  professionals, 
not  amateurs  lite  their  medieval  predecessors.  Without  them,  the  economic 
advances  of  the  modern  world,  even  of  our  whole  developed  culture,  would 
have  been  entirely  impossible,  for  they  built  the  frame  of  public  order,  of 
security  for  private  property,  within  the  state — and  to  a  degree  even  in  inter- 
national relations,  which  were  by  no  means  anarchical,  but,  rather,  an  organ- 
ized struggle  for  prize — without  which  nothing  else  could  have  been  done. 
They  were,  even  when  socially  mobile,  for  the  most  part  gentlemen,  and  they 
had  the  manners  and  morals  of  gentlemen.  Even  as  agents  of  reason  of  state 
in  international  relations,  the  diplomatists  were  not  quite  the  villains  of  our 
current  popular  conceptions,  not  Hollywood-conceived  diplomatists.  Like 
Talleyrand,  who  is  a  superior  specimen  of  the  breed,  they  did  not  believe  in 
the  unnecessary  violation  of  the  principles  of  morality,  and  they  were  fully 
aware  that  open  and  avowed  immorality  even  in  international  relations  is  not 
wise.  They  knew  that  vice  always  owes  its  tribute  to  virtue,  and  that  the 
tribute  should  be  a  graceful  one.  But  there  can  be  no  doubt  that  both  in  do- 
mestic and  in  international  relations  this  new  class  was  strongly  influenced  by 
the  doctrine  of  reason  of  state,  and  by  the  feeling  for  rational  efficiency,  for 
rational  organization,  that  was  so  much  a  part  of  that  doctrine.  At  the  very 
least,  if  they  were  not  wicked  oppressors,  they  were  insensitive  managers,  firm 
believers  that  what  was  good  for  them  was  good  for  France,  or  Prussia,  or 
even  England.2 

Reason  of  state  was,  both  as  ethics  and  as  conduct,  profoundly  anti- 
Christian,  and  in  the  perspective  of  time  seems  far  the  most  dangerous  menace 
to  the  Christian  view  of  life  that  came  out  of  the  Renaissance.  The  Middle 
Ages  could  hardly  have  entertained  the  doctrine.  Grant,  as  in  this  book  I 
have  perhaps  too  freely  granted,  that  the  spotted  medieval  reality  was  bad, 

2  The  doctrine  of  reason  of  state  as  formal  political  philosophy  was  never  very  popular 
in  England,  but  the  practice  surely  was — or  so  we  non-English  have  long  believed. 


The  Seventeenth  Century 

that  private  and  public  conduct  was  often  most  un-Christian,  it  remains  true 
that  medieval  man  could  not  have  thought  that  all  things  are  Caesar's.  A 
medieval  Antigone,  supported  by  her  confessor,  would  have  confronted  a 
feudal  baron  ordering  her  to  violate  canon  law  without  much  sense  of  being 
heroic,  and  she  would  have  been  well  supported  by  the  organized  church.  In 
fact,  the  international  church  was  better  organized  than  the  international  state 
(the  imperfect  empire  of  the  High  Middle  Ages) ;  in  theory,  the  doctrine  of 
the  two  swords,  lay  rulers  and  spiritual  rulers,  each  with  his  own  province, 
left  to  Christian  ethics  a  very  great  sphere.  A  medieval  cardinal  might  have 
had  quite  as  strong  a  will  to  power  as  Richelieu — many  of  them  clearly  did — 
but  he  could  not  have  possibly  exercised  that  will  to  power  as  Richelieu  did, 
and  have  kept  the  good  opinion  of  the  world.  It  is  a  measure  of  the  difference 
of  the  climate  of  opinion  in  the  two  cultures  that,  though  he  had  his  critics, 
Richelieu  was  accepted  in  his  own  day  as,  if  not  a  good  man,  at  least  as  one 
not  to  be  greatly  blamed. 

One  may  risk  a  broad  generalization:  with  the  rise  of  this  class  of  pro- 
fessional servants  of  the  new  state,  who  were  not  only  necessarily  in  close 
relations  with  men  of  '"business,"  but  had  in  a  sense  to  be  themselves  men  of 
business,  the  characteristic  agon  of  the  West  begins  its  spread  into  activities 
that  the  ancients  considered  banausic,  and  that  the  ruling  classes  of  the 
Middle  Ages  considered  low.  The  reader  must  recall  that  I  use  the  word 
"agon"  not  as  a  synonym  for  human  competitiveness,  let  alone  for  the  full 
range  of  the  Darwinian  "struggle  for  life"  among  human  beings,  but  for  the 
ritualized,  almost  sportive,  competition  for  the  great  honors  of  a  given  society, 
for  the  satisfaction  of  the  will  to  shine  perhaps  even  more  than  the  will  to 
power,  and  often  with  extreme  disregard  for  the  will  to  survive.  With  the 
possible  exception  of  the  late  Greco-Roman  world,  the  agon  had  hitherto 
been  limited  to  the  kind  of  group  and  the  kind  of  activity  suggested  by  words 
like  "aristocrat,"  "gentleman,"  "amateur,"  and  the  like.  Even  in  the  society 
of  the  Roman  Empire,  the  newly  rich  Trimalchio  is  a  figure  of  fun,  the  de- 
voted soldiers  and  administrators  for  the  most  part  Stoic  gentlemen  full  of 
scruples,  basically  amateurs,  and  quite  incapable  of  an  expressed  concept  like 
reason  of  state. 

It  is  certainly  true  enough  that  the  old  prestige  of  the  warrior-aristocrat 
and  the  priest-aristocrat  continued.  Indeed,  even  in  these  United  States  today, 
the  opinion  polls  always  show  the  heirs  of  Achilles,  Odysseus,  and  Socrates, 
the  soldiers,  judges,  politicians,  scientists — yes,  even  the  college  professors — 
ahead  of  the  businessman  or  banker  in  the  agon.  But  the  businessman  and  the 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

banker  are  there,  in  the  midst  of  the  agon,  along  with  a  great  many  others 
who  were  not  there  in  earlier  times. 

Here  the  question — unanswerable,  as  usual,  in  this  form — inevitably 
arises:  Did  the  new  economy  precede,  "cause,"  the  new  state  and  its  morality 
of  efficiency,  or  did  the  new  state  and  the  new  morality  "cause"  the  new 
rational  and  dynamic  economy?  We  Americans,  children  of  the  Enlighten- 
ment, like  the  Marxist  grandchildren  of  that  great  change  in  our  views  of  the 
universe,  tend  to  put  the  economic  horse  solidly  before  the  linked  carts  of 
morals  and  politics.  Actually,  we  are  dealing  here  with  a  process  of  historical 
action  and  reaction,  of  multiple  causation,  in  which  no  horse-and-cart  meta- 
phor helps,  nor  any  metaphors  of  roots,  or  watersheds  and  tributary  streams, 
or  trigger  pulls.  Richelieu,  Colbert,  Cromwell,  Heinsius — not  to  mention  John 
LaW — are  all  part  of  a  long  process  in  which  millions  of  now-forgotten  men 
made  millions  of  decisions  that  made  the  modern  world.  You  cannot,  except 
in  a  frame  of  purely  metaphysical  thought,  say  if  there  had  been  no  great 
administrators  like  the  above,  then  no  Watt,  no  Stephenson,  no  Rockefeller, 
no  Ford.  But  you  can  say  that  in  the  historical  process  as  we  know  it,  the  new 
economy  and  the  material  gains  it  brought  in  its  train  were  impossible  without 
the  new  state,  the  new  bureaucracy,  the  new  standardization  and  efficiency  in 
administration.  If  you  are  still  dissatisfied  with  this  formulation,  consult  your 
sentiments,  which  should,  as  always,  give  some  kind  of  answer  to  the  unan- 
swerable. My  own  lean  toward:  In  the  beginning  was  the  Word. 


But  surely  did  not  Francis  Bacon,  Galileo,  and  Newton  have  a  part  in  the 
great  transformation  of  values  that  has  put  a  Henry  Ford  not,  indeed,  in  the 
place  of  an  Achilles,  but  at  least  in  a  place  of  honor  not  totally  unlike  his? 
Natural  science  is  certainly  one  of  the  major  components  of  our  contempo- 
rary view  of  the  universe,  and  therefore  of  our  morals.  But  the  relations  be- 
tween the  development  of  modern  natural  science  and  the  whole  social  and 
cultural  matrix  out  of  which  science  grew  are  most  complex  and  ill-under- 

As  systematic  knowledge  of  "events"  in  the  external  world  and  their 
probable  interrelations — including  the  possibility  of  predicting  them — natural 
science  goes  back  to  the  ancient  Near  East.  So,  too,  does  the  helpmeet  or 
auxiliary  of  science,  mathematics.  The  distinguished  historian  of  science  the 
late  George  Sarton  devoted  several  long  volumes  and  hundreds  of  articles  to 


The  Seventeenth  Century 

his  chosen  subject  without  ever  getting  very  far  into  modern  times.  Nor  was 
ancient  and  medieval  science — there  was  indeed  science  in  the  Middle  Ages 
— simply  "deductive."  The  present  elaborate  social  and  material  equipment 
for  testing,  experimenting,  verifying  did  not  exist,  but  the  fundamental  con- 
cept of  Western  science  summed  up  as  the  imperative  to  submit  "theory"  to 
the  test  of  "facts"  was  as  well  known  to  Hippocrates  and  Archimedes  as  to 

Yet  we  do  quite  rightly  assume  that  "modern"  science  is  different  from 
earlier  forms  of  science.  First  and  most  obviously,  it  clearly  occupies  a  more 
important  place  in  our  culture,  in  terms  appropriately  if  only  roughly  meas- 
urable in  man-hours  devoted  to  it.  It  is,  as  a  corpus  of  learning,  immensely 
greater  and  more  varied.  No  matter  how  you  decided  to  measure  it,  your  lines 
of  graph  would  skyrocket  from  the  seventeenth  century  onward.  Second,  and 
quite  obvious  to  us  today,  the  work  of  the  "pure"  scientist  was  to  prove  use- 
ful to  the  "practical"  engineer,  technologist,  craftsman,  entrepreneur,  and 
through  them  to  make  possible  the  extraordinary  material  success  of  the 
modern  West,  a  success  neatly  summarized  by  the  fact  that  at  the  present  apex 
of  this  process,  the  ordinary  American  has  in  his  garage  the  power-equivalent 
of  a  princely  stable  of  former  times,  or  of  a  whole  plantation  full  of  slaves. 
Third,  less  obvious  but  more  important  for  the  historian  of  morals,  modern 
natural  science  has  buttressed,  extended,  in  a  sense  made  possible,  a  whole 
set  of  heresies  of  Christianity,  or,  if  you  prefer,  an  anti-Christian  world  view* 
for  which  I  have  used  the  no-doubt-inadequate  blanket  term  "Enlighten- 
ment." I  now  offer  the  reader  a  wide  assortment  of  terms:  materialism, 
rationalism,  "humanism,"  scientism,  naturalism,  secularism,  evolutionism, 
positivism,  ethical  culture.  Again,  with  the  great  name  as  symbol;  no  Galileo, 
Newton,  Darwin,  then  no  Locke,  no  Herbert  Spencer,  no  Marx — or,  at  the 
very  least,  no  such  great  secular  religions  associated  with  such  names  as  these 
last,  no  modern  democracy,  no  widespread  belief  in  "progress,"  no  Commu- 

Although  for  us,  concerned  with  the  history  of  Western  morals,  the  third 
factor  is  of  major  importance,  it  is  worth  noting  briefly  that  both  the  other 
factors  have  a  moral  aspect.  Science  in  itself,  as  an  intellectual  discipline, 
could  hardly  have  flourished  as  it  did  after  1600  had  it  not  been  for  the  long 
tradition  of  disciplined  thinking,  and  disciplined  scholarly  patience,  that  had 
inspired  even  so  unscientific  an  intellectual  achievement  as  medieval  scholas- 

3  On  "facts'*  I  refer  the  reader  back,  through  my  note  on  p.  4  to  L.  J.  Henderson. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

ticism.  The  banausic  virtue,  or  necessity,  of  sheer  hard  dull  work  had  well 
before  Calvin  been  an  acquisition  of  the  second  or  intellectual  aristocracy  of 
learning  as,  in  spite  of  the  need  for  a  degree  of  "practice"  in  athletic  training, 
it  had  not  been  for  the  first,  or  warrior-statesman,  aristocracy.  Catholic 
Christianity,  especially  in  its  monastic  form,  had  made  work  honorable  and 
habitual  among  the  learned.  This  same  extension  of  the  banausic  virtues  had 
to  come  about  before  science  and  technology  could  begin  their  modern  col- 
laboration. That  collaboration  is  not  as  old — not,  at  least,  in  the  form  we 
know  it — as  is  commonly  thought.  Francis  Bacon  does  foresee  it,  with  the 
scientist  leading  the  way.  But  for  a  long  time  in  these  early  modem  centuries 
it  is  the  craftsman,  the  empirical  inventor  of  instruments,  the  metallurgist  who 
make  it  possible  for  the  pure  scientist  to  do  more  and  more  refined  and  effec- 
tive work.  But  for  the  two  to  come  together  at  all,  the  scientist  had  to  be 
conditioned,  not  merely  to  the  intellectual  attitude  implied  in  his  Antaeus-like 
return  to  earth  after  flights  of  thinking  and  imagination,  but  to  the  moral 
attitude  that  the  search  for  facts  cannot  be  identical  with  the  pursuit  of  the 
beautiful-and-good,  cannot  be  done  with  the  old  Greek  grace,  cannot,  indeed, 
be  done  with  Renaissance  virtu. 

We  do  not,  I  repeat,  understand  how  this  came  about;  but  somehow  the 
virtues  of  the  workshop  became  also  the  virtues  of  the  laboratory  and  the 
office  or  bureau.  The  modern  German  gift  they  vulgarly  call  Sitzftetsch — you 
will  hardly  find  it  in  the  Germans  of  Tacitus,  or  of  the  Song  of  the  Nibelungs 
— came  into  honor  in  the  West.  We  can,  however,  once  more  be  sure  that  the 
process  was  not  one  of  idea-horse  pulling  matter-cart,  or  vice  versa,  but  the 
long,  slow  mutual  interaction  of  millions  of  human  beings  variously  moti- 
vated, variously  environed,  a  process  circular,  or  spiral,  but  not  neatly  uni- 
linear. This  is  quite  as  true  of  the  process  by  which  the  modern  heresies  above 
so  generously  named  came  into  being.  Science  had  a  most  important  part  in 
the  process,  but  in  no  sense  was  its  only  begetter — but  this  last,  too,  is  an 
unsatisfactory  figure  of  speech,  for  in  such  processes  the  begetter  is  also  be- 
gotten by  what  he  begets. 

Once  it  had  begun  to  seep  down  into  the  awareness  of  the  educated  and 
later  of  the  partly  educated  classes,  which  it  had  done  in  Western  and  Central 
Europe  and  the  United  States  by  the  last  of  the  eighteenth  century,  science- 
atfw-technology  had  its  major  effect  in  reducing  immeasurably  the  areas 
within  which  a  man  might  assume  a  will  at  least  remotely  like  his  own  to  be 
operating.  Medieval  Christianity,  as  we  have  noted,  still  left  an  immense  field 
for  a  God — yes,  let  us  use,  though  not  in  scorn,  the  word  "anthropomorphic" 


The  Seventeenth  Century 

— who  even  when  He  did  not  "interfere"  with  Nature,  still  guided  and  con- 
trolled Nature  and,  above  all,  gave  purpose  to  natural  processes.  Science  and 
many  scientists  themselves  were  not  long  in  coming  to  the  point  Laplace  at 
the  end  of  the  eighteenth  century  had  arrived  at  when  he  could  say  of  God, 
"I  have  no  need  for  that  hypothesis." 

We  need  not  here  consider  how  legitimate,  wise,  or  valuable  was  this  leap 
from  the  specific  study  of  scientific  problems  to  a  religion,  or  at  least  a 
cosmology,  which  we  commonly  call  "materialist"  or  "mechanical.'"  The  fact 
is  that  men  made  the  leap,  and  that  they  were  encouraged  to  make  the  leap 
by  the  extent  to  which  science  already  had  succeeded  in  accounting  for  much 
in  nature  that  had  hitherto  defied  "rational"  accounting.  Thunder  and  light- 
ning, that  old  favorite,  will  do  as  an  example.  Admittedly,  even  the  illiterate 
Christian  probably  did  not  see  his  God  in  the  storm  in  the  role  of  Jove  or 
Thor  actually  wielding  bolts  of  thunder,  but  neither  could  he  account  for  the 
phenomenon,  save  by  common  sense,  which  never  really  accounts  for  any- 
thing, never  satisfies  our  need  for  a  metaphysics;  he  could  not,  as  a  matter  of 
fact,  account  in  this  way  for  wood  floating  in  water,  and  iron  sinking.  Histo- 
rians of  science  are  quite  justified  in  pointing  out  that  scientists  themselves, 
qua  scientists,  by  no  means  "produced"  the  world  view  of  the  new  Enlighten- 
ment, and  certainly  not  the  doctrine  of  the  natural  goodness  of  man.  But  the 
upshot  of  the  popularization  of  science  among  the  upper  and  middle  classes 
was  an  invitation  to  a  world  view  that  would  dispense  with,  or  at  least  greatly 
curb  and  confine,  the  activities  here  on  earth  of  an  immanent  godhead. 

A  concrete  instance  may  help  the  modern  reader.  Henry  VIE  of  England 
had  his  marriage  with  Catherine  of  Aragon  annulled  (it  was  not  a  divorce) 
no  doubt  in  part  for  reasons  of  state.  The  arriviste  house  of  Tudor  needed  a 
male  heir,  and  though  poor  Catherine  had  had  numerous  miscarriages  and 
had  borne  short-lived  infants,  only  Princess  Mary  survived.  It  is  easy  for  us  to 
say  that  Henry  acted  out  of  selfish  and  hard-boiled  motives.  But  he  said  he 
believed  his  marriage  with  Catherine  had  been  contrary  to  canon  law  (she  was 
his  brother  Arthur's  widow)  and  that  God  was  punishing  him  for  this  sin  by 
denying  him  a  male  heir.  Why  should  he  not  believe  this  sincerely,  since  he 
found  it  convenient  to  so  believe?  Henry  knew  much  less  about  the  physi- 
ology of  human  reproduction  than  does  the  ordinary  schoolboy  today;  in  fact, 
from  the  point  of  view  of  modern  science,  he  knew  nothing.  Even  today,  the 
fundamentalist  Christian  can  believe  that  God  directly  guides  the  spermatozoa 
on  their  heroic  way  to  the  ovum  and  can  and  does  sidetrack  them  if  He  likes. 
But  most  of  us,  Christian  and  non-Christian,  would  turn  our  minds  first,  in  a 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

specific  case  such  as  this,  to  anatomy,  physiology,  and  the  mathematics  of 

Earthquakes,  terrifying  indeed,  and  occurring  at  no  regular  intervals  and 
with  no  obvious  "natural"  causes,  are  an  even  better  example  of  the  gradual 
encroachment  of  natural  causation  upon  divine  intervention.  They  were  until 
the  eighteenth  century  almost  universally  regarded  as  acts  of  God  in  a  literal 
sense  hard  for  most  of  us,  even  if  we  are  honest  Christians,  to  recapture — by 
no  means  acts  of  God  in  the  sense  covered  by  that  phrase  in  our  insurance 
policies.  The  disastrous  Lisbon  earthquake  of  1755  is  nearly  at  the  dividing 
line  for  the  educated  classes.  The  general  public  still  interpreted  the  catastro- 
phe as  a  warning  and  an  intervention  of  divine  power;  the  philosophes,  though 
they  believed  the  disaster  had  natural  causes,  nonetheless  launched  themselves 
from  it  in  vigorous  moralizing,  as  did  Voltaire  in  his  Candide;  the  scientists, 
or  natural  philosophers,  as  they  were  still  known,  though  very  much  in  the 
dark,  went  to  work  gropingly  on  what  became  the  science  of  seismology.5  The 
scientists,  let  it  be  repeated,  have  won,  for  the  great  majority  of  Westerners, 
even  though  they  are  Christians,  cannot  see  directly,  concretely,  as  the 
metaphor  requires,  the  hand  of  God  in  specific  chains  of  "natural  causation."6 

But  was  not  common  sense  enough,  and  had  not  common  sense  already  in 
the  Middle  Ages  pretty  well  banished  primitive  animistic  notions,  and  even 
expectancy  of  the  kind  of  miracle  Christian  tradition  enshrined?  To  a  degree, 
this  is  no  doubt  so.  But  just  what  did  go  on  in  the  medieval  mind  when  it 
faced  the  traditional  water  test  for  a  person  accused  of  witchcraft,  whereby 

4  For  the  facts  of  Henry's  belief  see  C.  W.  Ferguson,  Naked  to  Mine  Enemies:  The  Life 
of  Cardinal  Wolsey,  Boston,  Little  Brown,  1958,  pp.  331-332.  The  familiar  story  of  how 
Charles  n  roared  with  laughter  when  he  heard  that  the  scientists  of  his  Royal  Society 
were  trying  to  weigh  air  is  another  case  in  point. 

5  "In  1750  a  writer  on  the  subject  [of  earthquakes]  in  the  Philosophic  Transactions  of 
the  Royal  Society  of  London  apologized  to  'those  who  are  apt  to  be  offended  at  any 
attempts  to  give  a  rational  account  of  earthquakes'."  K.  E.  Bullen,  *The  Interior  of  the 
Earth,**  in  The  Planet  Earth,  a  Scientific  American  Book,  New  York,  Simon  &  Schu- 
ster, 1957,  p.  19.  For  the  fascinating  intellectual  and  moral  history  of  the  aftermath  of 
the  Lisbon  earthquake  see  T.  D.  Kendrick,  The  Lisbon  Earthquake,  London,  Methuen, 

6 1  had  written  the  above  when  I  saw  an  arresting  newspaper  headline:  GOD'S  ROLE  IN 
THE  RECESSION.  Further  reading,  however,  as  is  not  infrequently  true  of  headlines,  actu- 
ally confirmed  what  I  had  written  and  showed  that  my  first  impression,  that  here  was 
a  good  old-fashioned  fundamentalist,  was  wrong.  Someone  had  written  the  evangelist 
Billy  Graham  asking  why  God  allowed  the  unemployment  crisis  of  1957-58  to  be  thrust 
on  the  people,  and  Mr.  Graham  began  his  reply:  "Certain  things  that  come  upon  nations 
are  not  necessarily  ordained  of  God,  but  are  the  result  of  the  law  of  cause  and  effect. 
God  doesn't  as  a  rule  go  against  the  laws  of  the  universe."  It  is  quite  possible  in  our 
world  that  the  headline  writer  or  the  questioner  or  both  were  Enlightened,  attempting 
to  needle  Mr.  Graham.  San  Francisco  Chronicle,  April  19,  1958,  p.  12. 


The  Seventeenth  Century 

the  accused  was  thrown  into  deep  water,  considered  innocent  if  the  water 
swallowed  him  and  guilty  if  he  succeeded  in  keeping  above  water,  presumably 
on  the  grounds  that  the  innocent  water  rejected  an  evil  thing?  Clearly  there 
is  a  normal  expectancy  here,  not  wholly  irrational  by  any  means;  but  equally 
clearly  there  is  a  view  of  the  properties  of  water  hard  for  the  most  convinced 
Christian  today  to  entertain.  I  think  it  clear  that  common  sense — even 
Western  common  sense,  which  is  perhaps  to  a  degree  inclined  toward  what 
becomes  natural  science — is,  unbuttressed  by  that  science,  unable  to  question 
seriously  the  full  Christian  cosmology.  Common  sense  alone  would  never 
have  the  courage,  or  the  foolhardiness,  to  question  the  possibility  of  the 
miraculous.  Even  at  the  height  of  the  Middle  Ages,  common  sense  could  and 
did  question  the  probability  of  the  miraculous  in  the  daily  round  of  life,  but 
not  the  possibility  of  the  miraculous.  To  conclude  that  miracles  in  the  Chris- 
tian sense  of  the  word  are  impossible  took  a  bolder,  newer,  less  experienced, 
more  ruthless  mental  discipline  than  common  sense,  or  even  "pure''  phil- 
osophical rationalism,  could  provide.  This  natural  science  did  provide. 

Natural  science  also  helped  fill  out,  extend,  and  implement  in  many  ways 
that  form  of  rationalism  that  is  best  called  "'efficiency"  and  that  I  have  already 
called  attention  to  as  one  of  the  goals  of  the  new  state.  Indeed,  natural  science 
is  the  most  efficient  tool  man  thinking  has  yet  developed  to  help  him  realize 
certain  definite  aims  or  goals;  sufficient  here  to  mention  our  modern  conquests 
of  wealth  and  power.  In  itself,  and  in  spite  of  the  deep  belief  of  the  heirs  of 
the  philosophes  that  it  does  provide  such,  science  does  not  provide  what  the 
moralist  as  well  as  the  theologian  has  to  call  ends,  goals,  purpose.  The  growth 
of  natural  science  in  the  modern  West  is,  as  we  have  noted  already,  and  shall 
have  to  pay  much  more  attention  to  in  the  next  chapter,  intimately  connected 
historically  with  the  rise  of  full  cosmological  rationalism.  But  in  itself  science 
merely  helps  us  do  what  we  want  to  do,  blow  up  Hiroshima  or  reconstruct  it. 
The  help  is  the  help  of  a  giant,  and  no  doubt  the  knowledge  that  the  giant  is 
there  has  deeply  and  subtly  affected  our  feeling  for  what  is  desirable,  if  only 
by  so  enlarging  our  feeling  for  what  is  possible.  Science  probably  does  add  to 
our  Western  hubris;  but  the  hubris  was  there,  very  strong,  long,  long  ago. 
More  important — I  shall  return  to  this  point — science  normally  supplies  no 
such  restraint  on,  discipline  of,  that  hubris  as  that  which  orthodox  Chris- 
tianity supplies. 

Finally,  natural  science  played  a  great  part  in  the  growth  of  the  modern 
doctrine  of  Progress  (the  capital  letter  is  necessary).  At  the  very  end  of  the 
seventeenth  century,  in  the  great  debates  over  whether  the  moderns  could 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

ever  equal  the  ancients,  the  concrete  evidence  of  scientific  progress  was  useful 
to  the  proponents  of  modernity.  Dean  Swift's  attack  on  the  scientists  in  the 
Academy  of  Laputa,  though  by  no  means  the  last  attack  on  scientists,  was 
perhaps  the  last  brilliant  attack  in  which  they  were  accused  of  living  in  a 
Qoud-Cuckoo-Land  of  utterly  impractical  projects,  made  to  seem  in  their 
way  quite  as  unworldly  or  foolish  as  the  Renaissance  humanists  had  made  the 
Schoolmen  seem,  debating  how  many  angels  could  sit  on  the  point  of  a 
needle.7  By  the  end  of  the  eighteenth  century,  French  scientists  were  being 
formally  organized  to  help  the  revolutionary  government  in  that  most  prac- 
tical of  human  activities,  warfare.  Men  in  hot-air  balloons,  after  small  animals 
had  previously  been  sent  up,  had  begun  the  conquest  of  the  air.  The  fact  of 
technological  progress,  and  its  relation  to  the  work  of  the  pure  scientists,  had 
begun  to  be  evident  to  the  general  public.  The  men  who  planned  and  made  the 
great  French  encyclopedia  in  the  mid-eighteenth  century  were  well  aware  of 
this  conquest  of  the  scientists  and  technologists;  soon,  with  St.  Simon, 
Fourier,  Robert  Owen,  men  were  to  assert  the  modern  conception  that  there 
could  be  a  social  science  modeled  on  natural  science,  and  that,  just  as  natural 
science  bore  fruit  in  technological  "progress,"  so  social  science  would  inevi- 
tably bear  fruit  in  moral  progress  or,  what  their  thinkers  regarded  as  identical 
in  meaning,  social,  economic,  and  political  progress. 

Yet  the  seventeenth  century  was  by  no  means  simply  the  first  of  the  modern 
centuries,  the  century  of  the  triumphant  new  secular  state,  of  the  beginnings 
of  organized  science,  of  increasing  capitalistic  production,  of  the  final  swing 
of  power — and  of  cultural  leadership,  too — from  the  Mediterranean  to  the 
Atlantic.  It  was  also  the  century  that  saw  the  culmination  in  practice  and  in 
ideal  of  a  way  of  life  that  was  destined  to  die  out  in  our  time  as  completely 
as  any  such  way  of  life  can  in  our  history-ridden  Western  world.  Though  what 
is  suggested  by  words  like  "aristocracy,"  "noblesse,"  "gentleman,"  "Ritter- 
lich"  "hidalgo"  still  carry  some  weight  of  associations,  favorable  or  unfavor- 
able— in  fact,  as  always  for  most  of  us  normal  human  beings,  mixed  and 
ambivalent  associations — the  style  of  twentieth-century  culture  has  no  place 
for  the  reality  behind  the  words.  Even  where,  as  with  the  "new  conservatives" 
in  the  United  States,  there  is  an  attempt  to  uphold  the  linking  of  privilege 


T  Howard  Mumford  Jones,  in  his  recent  defense  of  research  in  the  humanities,  points 
out  with  satisfying  irony  that  Swift  was  accusing  the  scientists  of  exactly  the  kind  of 
silly  pedantry  it  is  now  fashionable  to  hold  against  the  humanist  scholar. 


The  Seventeenth  Century 

and  duty,  the  full  overtones  of  noblesse  oblige,  the  dignity,  good  taste,  re- 
straint, pi  etas  (capacity  for  feeling  reverence),  and  distrust  of  innovation 
and  bright  innovators  that  characterizes  the  ideal  of  the  gentleman  of  the 
ancien  regime,  there  is  rejection  of  \vhat  was,  after  all,  a  fundamental  of  this 
actual  European  aristocracy — inherited  title,  privileges,  wealth,  protected  as 
far  as  seems  possible  in  the  West  by  caste  restrictions  on  marriage  with  out- 
siders, or  mesalliances.  Our  new  conservatives  want  an  open  aristocracy  of 
merit — an  aim,  the  historian  of  the  West  is  bound  to  insist  seems  as  Utopian 
as  when  Plato  first  announced  it  in  the  Republic.  As  for  the  remaining  nobles 
in  the  flesh,  two  centuries  have  been  very  hard  on  them,  even  in  Britain.  A 
duke,  like  a  queen,  does  not  even  look  quite  right  in  modern  dress. 

The  aristocracy  of  the  European  ancien  regime  was  in  fact  the  last  natural 
aristocracy  in  the  West.  The  "nature's  nobleman"  of  the  sentimental  eight- 
eenth century,  the  "aristocracy  of  talent"  of  hopeful  intellectuals,  above  all, 
no  doubt,  the  horrid  "superiors"  emerging  from  the  cauldron  of  modern 
racist,  elitist,  and  even  crankier  thinking  and  feeling  all  seem  unreal,  syn- 
thetic, unnatural.  Our  notions  of  excellence — I  use  the  word  deliberately 
instead  of  another  with  more  suggestions  of  social  hierarchy — have  been 
splintered,  atomized,  specialized,  though  by  no  means  destroyed  or  even,  in 
a  sense,  lessened,  in  our  world  of  egalitarian  ideals  and  prize-seeking  realities. 
In  our  world  a  cat  cannot  only  look  at  a  king — if  he  can  find  one — but,  if  he 
is  a  prize-winning,  pedigreed,  best-of-show  champion,  is  himself  a  kind  of 
king.  The  European  aristocracy  of  old  was  founded  on  a  conception  of  gen- 
eral excellence,  of  hierarchical  superiority,  not  merely  the  old  Greek  effort- 
less and  amateur  superiority  of  the  beautiful-and-good  (though  that  was  an 
important  part  of  the  aristocratic  ideal),  but  on  a  conception  of  an  order 
actually  cosmological,  not  merely  psychological  or  sociological,  on  a  belief 
that  the  aristocrat  was  a  part  of  God's  and  nature's  plan  for  the  universe.  It  is 
almost  impossible  for  a  modern  American  to  understand  the  sentiment  that 
made  of  this  aristocracy  a  reality.  I  can  hardly  do  better  than  revert  to  a 
concrete  instance  that  brought  the  reality  to  me  sharply  in  the  midst  of  my 
early  researches  in  the  history  of  the  French  Revolution.  A  servant  was 
brought  before  the  revolutionary  authorities  for  smuggling  in  roast  chicken  to 
a  nobleman  imprisoned  during  the  Terror  as  a  suspected  '"counter-revolu- 
tionary."  The  unrepentant  servant  explained  his  act  simply:  "But  M.  le 
Marquis  was  born  to  eat  chicken."8 

8  Crane  Brinton,  The  Jacobins,  New  York.  Macmillan,  1930,  p.  269n.  I  think  there  is  a 
symbolic  truth,  and  not  mere  irony,  in  the  fact  that  in  our  United  States  chicken  is  no 
longer  in  any  sense  a  luxury  food. 


A  History  of  Western  Morals 

It  must  not  be  assumed  that  either  in  theory  or  in  practice  this  aristocracy 
was  an  absolutely  closed  caste.  What  I  have  said  above  does  not  so  much  need 
qualification  as  completion.  Outsiders  could  enter  the  aristocracy,  but  ac- 
cording to  the  theorists,  only  for  some  outstanding  merit,  such  as  great  service 
to  the  country;  and  even  those  formally  ennobled,  or,  in  England  especially, 
granted  the  legal  right  to  use  a  coat  of  arms,  and  thus  enrolled  among  the 
gentry,  could  at  best  hope  that  their  sons  or  grandsons  would  be  fully  and 
completely  assimilated  to  the  quality  of  gentlemen.  We  can  today,  of  course, 
look  back  and  say  that  precisely  the  reason  for  the  vogue  of  manuals  of 
"courtesy,"  of  self-help  in  learning  how  to  behave  like  a  gentleman,  which 
from  Castiglione  on  are  very  numerous  in  the  West,  was  that  the  successful 
bourgeois  were  pressing  very  hard  and  Marxistically  on  the  class  above  them. 
And  there  is  some  light  thrown  on  human  conduct  by  the  obvious  though  not 
Marxist  truth  that  the  early  modern  bourgeoisie  sought  to  imitate  the  man- 
ners, the  'Values"  of  the  noblesse,  and  that  the  nineteenth-  and  twentieth- 
century  proletariat  sought  to  imitate  the  manners  and  values  of  the  middle 
class.  This  latter  imitation  would  appear  to  have  been  especially  close  and 
successful,  if,  by  our  current  aristocratic  Western  artistic  standards,  unfortu- 
nate, in  the  Soviet  Union. 

Still,  the  tone  of  these  sixteenth-  and  seventeenth-century  manuals  of 
behavior  is  very  different  from  that  to  which  the  American  disciples  of  Emily 
Post  and  her  fellow  writers  on  etiquette  are  accustomed.  Sir  John  Ferne  was 
simply  more  outspoken  than  his  colleagues  when  he  concluded  the  long  title 
page  of  his  The  Blazon  of  Gentry  (1586),  "wherein  is  treated  of  the  begin- 
ning, parts,  and  degrees  of  gentlenesse,"  with  the  specific  injunction:  "Com- 
piled by  John  Feme  gentleman,  for  the  instruction  of  all  gentlemen  bearers 
of  armes,  whome  and  none  other  this  worke  concerneth."9  That  tone  is 
already,  by  the  close  of  the  sixteenth  century,  the  tone  of  a  group  on  the 
defensive,  aware  that  it  is  defending  if  not  a  lost,  at  least  a  menaced,  cause. 
Ferne  must  have  known  that  the  "Mercers,  and  shopkeepers,  retaylors,  Cooks, 
victaylours,  and  Taverne-holders,  Millioners,  and  such  lyke"  who,  he  com- 
plained, were  "suffered  to  cloath  themselves,  with  the  coates  of  Gentlenes" 
would  make  up  a  large  part  of  the  public  for  his  book. 

These  gentlemen,  if,  as  all  such  classes  must  be,  they  were  sure  of  their 

9  Quoted  in  Ruth  Kelso,  The  Doctrine  of  the  English  Gentleman  in  the  Sixteenth  Cen- 
tury, University  of  Illinois,  Studies  in  Language  and  Literature,  XIV,  No.  1-2,  1929,  p. 
208.  The  reader  will  find  in  Dr.  Kelso's  bibliography  an  admirable  guide  to  the  litera- 
ture of  "courtesy"  not  only  for  Britain,  but  for  the  rest  of  the  West  European  countries. 


The  Seventeenth  Century 

standards  of  value,  were  not  at  all  sure  that  they  would  be  allowed  to  real 
them  in  this  real  world.  One  may  hazard  the  guess  that  in  the  West,  at  les 
no  privileged  aristocracy  has  been  entirely  unaware  of  some  danger  £r< 
below,  though  it  is  hard  to  read  such  awareness  into  either  Homer  or  1 
Chanson  de  Roland.  But  there  is  a  difference  between  fear  of  the  masses  a 
fear  of  those  barely  below — perhaps,  in  actual  economic  position,  above 
who  are  pressing  hard  for  a  share  of  honor,  glory,  prestige,  all  goods  mu 
less  readily  divisible  than  mere  money.  The  Due  de  St.  Simon  spends  paj 
recording  with  full  moral  indignation  his  efforts  to  maintain  his  right  to  hs 
the  president  a  mortier  of  the  parlement  (a  noble  indeed,  but  of  the  nev 
nobility  of  the  civil  service,  not,  like  St.  Simon,  one  who  could  claim  to  be 
the  old  feudal  warrior  nobility)  doff  his  hat  in  the  ducal  presence.  St.  Sim 
seems  to  us  abnormally  sensitive,  his  insistence  on  such  points  of  etique 
petty.  He  was  indeed  a  great  writer,  but  there  are  no  grounds  for  holding  tl 
he  was  otherwise  very  different  from  the  rest  of  his  order.  He  is  at  the  end 
a  long  tradition,  an  exhausted  tradition,  in  which  manners  and  morals  hs 
been  frozen  into  a  ritual  exactness  and  exclusiveness  which  paradoxica 
sharpens  and  intensifies  the  struggle  for  prize  the  ritual  is  intended  to  tan 
or  at  least  control.  The  French  royal  levee,  as  described  in  a  famous  passe 
of  Taine,  is  a  good  example:  the  queen  was  sometimes  left  shivering  in  1 
damp  chill  of  the  ill-heated  palace  of  Versailles  as  successive  delayed  arriv 
of  ladies  of  precise  but  varying  rank  and  privilege  prevented  the  rapid  exec 
tion  of  her  ritual  clothing.10 

I  had  written  these  last  sentences  about  the  fantastic  order  of  rank  in  1 
ancien  regime,  and  the  intensification — the  rendering  ridiculous — of  1 
struggle  for  prize  that  it  produced  when  my  mind  reverted  to  my  own  bi 
experience  as  a  civil  servant,  and  to  certain  difficulties  over  a  rug  in  one  ofB 
a  bare  floor  in  another.  Sociologists  of  business  have  reminded  us  that  in  1